“Snow Angels” is the latest weather-thick melodrama by David Gordon Green, writer-director of the oddball hero tale “George Washington” and the mill-town romance “All the Real Girls.”
The stars are bigger and the action’s more standard this time around. But Green again delivers an impressively distinctive and humanity-charged serving of small-town hardship and occasional triumph.
Green relocates from the sun-drenched South to frozen climes for this adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s Pennsylvania-set novel, and you’ll need to shift your expectations into bleak mode. Vital characters, strong performances and splotches of humor, however, make the prevailing grimness watchable and effective.
Love, as it affects three couples in a dead-end town, is the theme.
Annie (Kate Beckinsale) has a 4-year-old daughter, a restaurant job, a best friend named Barb (Amy Sedaris), and a lover in the form of Barb’s husband, Nate (Nicky Katt). Annie also has a possessive, oppressive, violent, alcoholic ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), who desperately wants Annie back.
Arthur (Michael Angarano), a slightly awkward high-school trombonist, works at the restaurant with Annie. His romance with geeky-cool classmate Lila (Olivia Thirlby) is blossoming. The marriage of his parents (Jeannetta Arnette, Griffin Dunne) is failing.
The action consists of everyday ripples punctuated by two horrible events.
Green isn’t a filmmaker who, a la David Cronenberg, has ascended stratospherically. Nor does he make one differently themed treasure after another, Mike Leigh-style. “Snow Angels” breaks no new ground. Its suspense level is low. It suffers (through no fault of Rockwell’s) from too much Glenn.
But Green still delivers an admirably dark and suds-free story of love, need and the not-always-constructive struggle for connection, presented with his unique poetic-realist lens. The atmosphere is thick with unease. The frozen landscapes contain visual splendor.
The top-rate cast supplies characters who rarely seem false and who keep you caring. There is brightness and comic relief.
The Lila-Arthur romance, echoing that of the young lovers in “All the Real Girls,” is a sparklingly natural depiction of first love, for starters. The delightful Thirlby, in particular, emerges as an exciting new talent. The attempts by Arthur’s caring mother (wonderfully played by Arnette) to advise her son in the ways of coping are equally touching.
Also noteworthy is Beckinsale, who, while not entirely without glamour, is believable as a vital woman stuck in a miserable situation in nowhereville. Sedaris’ under-seen Barb makes for a nicely unconventional rendition of the betrayed-best-friend role.
Snow Angels (3 stars)
Starring Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby
Written and directed by David Gordon Green, from a book by Stewart O’Nan
Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes