Kate Beckinsale as Annie
Sam Rockwell as Glenn
Michael Angarano as Arthur Parkinson
Olivia Thirlby as Lila Raybern
Jeanetta Arnette as Louise Parkinson
Amy Sedaris as Barb
Nicky Katt as Nate Petite
Griffin Dunne as Don
With the release of David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels" we have our first official contestant for most depressing movie of the year. Based on Stewart O'Nan's novel, "Snow Angels" is a well observed character study of the small-town mid-West, and the ephemeral ways lives are connected together, often beyond conscious recognition. The good and the bad of that sort of interconnectedness is brought out when the town shares a mutual tragedy.
Green has developed a keen eye for character moments over his last several films. He takes what could be small, meaningless vignettes and weaves them together to create a real tapestry out of the lives "Snow Angels" follows. Despite just a few juxtaposed moments as the film cuts from family to family and group to group in its decently sized ensemble, each character feels fully realized. We know who all of them are and what they're about; it's all elegantly done.
And often surprisingly funny. It helps that he has an excellent cast that shines even when given just a few moments – a lot of thought's been given to make sure those moments are just the right ones. "Snow Angles" is a relationship drama in the purest sense of the term. It is entirely about the relationships of the characters to each other – husband to wife, parent to child, friends and lovers – in a spider-web of life as the characters grow and change in response to the world and people around them. Arthur (Michael Angarano) and Lila ("Juno's" Olivia Thirlby) are friends in high school just beginning to flirt with the idea of adulthood and what that means; Arthur's parents, Louise (Jeanetta Arnette) and Don (Griffin Dunne), who are in the process of separating because of Don's mid-life infidelity; Barb (Amy Sedaris), Arthur's co-worker at the local China Garden, who thinks her husband Nate (Nicky Katt) is having an affair. In less sure hands Barb and Nate would be the comic relief, instead they're quite sad and human. But the center of it all are Arthur's former babysitter Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and her ex-husband, recovering alcoholic/born again Christian Glen (Sam Rockwell).
Green loves Glen and it shows. He spends a lot of time on Glen's antics and tribulations, and not always to any real effect. It's the one actual sour note in the film. Glen is such a potentially over-the-top character (and Rockwell's not exactly known for his restraint) that the attention paid to him, especially in the second half, really upsets the momentum of the film. The delicate balance of characters Green plays with is such a precarious thing that any least little thing could upset it, and unfortunately Glen is something like a bull in a china shop.
The parts just aren't quite as interesting as the whole, and when Green starts to focus mainly on Glen and Annie, it's never quite as interesting as it had been. It seems more intuitive to keep the focus on Arthur and view the main plot through him rather than sideline him, but Green just can't seem to let Glen go. It's not that he's particularly boring, or that Rockwell doesn't do excellent work with him, but a little Glen goes a long way, and Green's loss of perspective really slows things down towards the end.
There's still a lot of excellent work in "Snow Angels." The first hour is utterly engrossing. But there's also a lot of wasted potential, which is too bad. It's still Green's most polished effort so far – it's possible he's working above his own talent level here, but it's depressing to think so – thanks to some delicate filmmaking and an excellent cast.