By Ray Pride
David Gordon Green’s fourth feature, the casually played yet deeply serious, soulful “Snow Angels,” continues along his own lovely path, reaching into particulars of working-class life with wit and empathy. Life is a river, and sometimes it freezes over: Green, working with generous breadth in adapting Stewart O’Nan’s novel, warms the heart. The cast is large, Altman-sized. Green moves between them fluidly. There are at least ten primary characters, and their interactions are marshaled with novelistic care. It’s a tapestry of overwhelming complication, adroitly described, demonstrating well the abiding truth that you must forgive trespasses in tiny towns. Failing to do so is at your own risk. (Made in 2006, “Snow Angels” debuted at Sundance in 2007 just before Green shot this summer’s Apatow-factory stoner comedy “Pineapple Express.”)
Set in an unnamed Pennsylvania town (but shot in Nova Scotia), the movie conveys the chill of disillusionment, yet in the foreground or in the corner of many of the widescreen shots, tendrils reach. Trees, rooted, that will revive come spring. Annie (Kate Beckinsale) is the mother of Tara, a small girl. Working at the China Town restaurant, she tries to avoid sad, lost, self-pitying, grief-struck estranged husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), while meeting up with Nate (Nicky Katt), husband of China Town co-worker Barb (Amy Sedaris). Another co-worker is teenaged Arthur (Michael Angarano), who is in a want-a-first-kiss flirtation with Lila, a proto-glamour-geek behind cats-eye glasses, under rats-nest tangle of dark hair (Olivia Thirlby, “Juno”). Theirs is a sweetly hopeful young romance despite the quietly catastrophic onset of middle-aged disillusionment in Arthur’s parents (still floppy-haired Griffin Dunne, weary yet luminous Jeanneta Arnette). Their youthful romance counterpoints the disillusioned grownups; the pair could become any of the failed, failing partners who surround them. The acting is very, very good, with the performers matching the capacity of Green’s fully furnished world to surprise from shot-to-shot. Establishing shots are used as socioeconomic shorthand, and meticulously gathered props and interior design hold talismanic weight.
Darkness falls. The temperature falls below ache. Disappointment shatters. The world falls apart terribly in this small, unspecified town and the landscape swallows many sorrows. And yet. Things change but life does not stop: young love, old love, they are as true as the hurts notched across years of acquaintance or relationship.
As always, Green and his customary cinematographer Tim Orr observe landscape, working as the first-est second unit of them all. (How do they find the time to shoot all this concrete yet lyrical coverage and get the central elements of the movie down as well?) Shots matter in movies like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow” and “Snow Angels”: An overweight grandmother with faded tattoos on her forearm. Kate Beckinsale’s bare calf, cocked, across a motel room bedspread. Snowflakes on red wool. A lovemaking scene that builds from the elegant example of “Don’t Look Now” (plus a bonus punch line that goes giddy-goofball over cunnilingus). A boy in class is pictured sketching an enormous power-transmission line, and Green cuts to the real line, which dominates a hillside and horizon without a lick of majesty. Among many other glorious instants, I would single out one of Lila, outdoors, watching Arthur leave the school grounds, taking a photograph of this boy to whom she is all the time more drawn; it’s from a bit of distance, and unsteady, framed just a little high on her as she looks over her glasses through the glass viewfinder of her twin-lensed medium-format camera, contrasting geometry both above and below her of the outdoor stadium, and her bulky-at-the-base winter coat planting her there like a tree. The next couple of shots? Landscapes in the style of the photographs she’s taken: for a second, her eyes, her perception, takes over the film’s omniscient vision. Green is good at this, at throwaway beauty. “Let me take your breath, okay? Now let’s move along.”
Dialogue matters to this still-young writer-director, too, as anyone who likes his films would tell you. Some reviewers cringe, for no good reason. This is far from Diablo Cody territory, in the best possible way. A girl browsing a slang dictionary as a tease: “Fellatrix. I like that”; “If Tom Cruise were a little girlie, girlie, he’d look like you”; “Can you say that in Spanish?”; “I’m nice, aren’t I?… Do you have any idea of how adorably cute you are? … Right now?” And emotion, with motion, calibrated, yet deliquescent: a girl’s “Stupid things you say make me like you even more,” caught in a handheld shot that moves uneasily back from a two-shot into an empty high-school corridor, leaving them framed at the center of their world.
“Snow Angels” opens Friday at Landmark Century.