The Reeler
The Sundance Blog

Angels in Our Midst

By Eric Kohn

"This is kind of a weird mood to sit down and chat," director David Gordon Green announced to a room packed to capacity with theatergoers Friday at the Racquet Club for the premiere of fifth film, Snow Angels.

Snow people: (L-R) Sam Rockwell, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby and director David Gordon Green following Friday's Snow Angels premiere (Photo: WireImage)

He was only half-joking, and at any rate, the movie was the talk of the festival most of Saturday). Based on Stewart O'Nan's 1994 novel (with a screenplay by Green, crafting his first adaptation), Snow Angels packs together three interlocking stories into a tense running time, with dense layers of tragedy sprinkled liberally throughout its sprawling yarn. The story examines a close-knit community in western Pennsylvania (not quite New York, granted, but Green's fine work deserves consideration even on The Reeler, and he's never made a film outside North Carolina), particularly focusing on the failed marriage of born-again alcoholic Glenn (Sam Rockwell) and Annie (Kate Beckinsale). Rockwell veers from pitiable to pathetic, as his character desperately tries to win back his wife and spend time with their toddler. Meanwhile, Annie enters into a desperate liaison with Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her best friend (Amy Sedaris).

The third arc follows introverted teen Arthur (Michael Angarano), who copes with the separation of his own parents. Surrounded by a lack of direction and apathy, Arthur comes out of his shell thanks to affection from Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a lively classmate and the only character in the film who isn't remotely dysfunctional. Needless to say, a lot happens in short order, especially considering the constrained setting of the film; Green employs complicated long takes and overlapping dialogue to give the story its realism and emotional girth.

And yet Green finds ways to inject the first two-thirds of Snow Angels with comedy, adding an element of shock to the continuing bleak developments. "Our instincts were to use comedy as a defense for the emotions we knew we had to get into," Green said after the screening. "If you look at it very specifically, it actually does help and make it more emotional. We left so much stuff on the cutting room floor that would be so inappropriate for this movie. Everyone on the set could make you laugh, we just had to make sure it was an appropriate moment—or it was one of those challenging moments where you're not feeling like a laugh, but a character is using it as a defense."

"I may perhaps be biased, but I think that it's brilliant," said Thirlby, whose previous credits include United 93 and the cancelled NBC drama Kidnapped. "The part I play is a juxtaposition to all the dark parts—the light side of new love, which kind of is the antithesis of what's going on in the other relationships in the movie. What I really love about it is that he doesn't it make it a light, bubbly film."

With good reason, too: The humor in Snow Angels never overlaps the larger conflict foreshadowing its harrowing conclusion, because each character's flaws are cleanly drawn and utterly believable. Rockwell, playing the most unstable member of the ensemble, had to do his homework. "I went to a lot of services and did a lot of born-again research," he said. "David and I just kind of reverberated a little bit. We had a lot of discussions about the character, and trying to find the right mix from the book—the right kind of anti-hero, an amalgam of all the anti-heroes that we grew up watching."

Rockwell's performance, which recalls Ryan Gosling's role as a crack-addicted schoolteacher in last year's Half Nelson, is complimented by the blank, snowy setting visible throughout the film, most of which was shot in Nova Scotia. "For me it was exciting, since I made a few movies in the south, and it's all sweaty and hot all the time," Green said. "I think that emotionally, you act differently when you're shivering than when sweating. I spent a lot of time being very cold."

A chorus of voices chimed in from across the room. "We can relate!" they cried.

"Yeah, you guys can relate over here," echoed Green. "Me, I got the sniffles."

Posted at January 20, 2007 7:00 PM

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