David Gordon Green may be on the verge of blowing up as a mainstream filmmaker. The indie stalwart behind All the Real Girls and George Washington directed The Pineapple Express, an upcoming comedy starring and written by Seth Rogen, who seems to spin comedy gold these days. But even if Green is about to become a household name, he’s throwing one last hurrah for his indie roots, with the melancholy and elegant Snow Angels.
Based on a novel by Stewart O’Nan, Snow Angels is a wintry collection of several interconnected stories, all taking place in the same small New England town. Arthur (Michael Angarano) is a typically gawky teen, busing tables at a local Chinese restaurant and flirting with co-worker Annie (Kate Beckinsale), who was his babysitter as a child. Annie is going through a divorce from Glenn (Sam Rockwell), her high school sweetheart who has since become more than a little unhinged. Living with his parents and devoting himself to Christianity, Glenn tries to maintain a relationship with his and Annie’s daughter Tara, but his self-loathing and drinking problem keep getting in the way.
Arthur is also witnessing a relationship fall apart in his own home, as his father (Griffin Dunne) moves out and Arthur’s mother Louise (Jeannetta Arnette) works to start her life over again. Meanwhile Arthur has started a flirtation with the local too-cool-for-school girl Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a romance that seems entirely innocent and hopeful compared to Annie and Glenn’s downward spiral.
Attempting to muddle through the new situations in which they’ve found themselves, each character makes some poor and selfish decisions. Arthur’s father is stranded, lonely, in an antiseptic condo, while Arthur himself no longer knows how to speak with his own dad. Annie embarks on an affair with coworker Barb’s (Amy Sedaris) husband, while Glenn continually shows up at Annie’s house uninvited.
All of these stories carry along on their own until one explosive, heartwrenching incident punches each character in the gut. It’s not the kind of crazy coincidence that makes an audience groan, but rather the kind of tragedy that unites every small town. Though Arthur and Annie and Louise and Lila are all coping with different emotions, they all must find a way to reckon with the same inner turmoil.
That’s a vague description, of course, but most of Snow Angels takes place in smaller moments rather than plot. The characters unfold and come alive slowly on the screen, with Green presenting them simply rather than asking you to judge or take part in their stories. The film veers occasionally into suspense or mystery, but mostly is content to study its characters, examining the small mishaps and revelations that make up most of our lives.
The character of Glenn is what sets much of the story in action, but he also feels the most out of place. As a man losing touch with his sanity he’s sympathetic, but sometimes skews a bit closer to film villainy that everyday melancholy. Rockwell commits himself to the performance but never quite succeeds in making Glenn’s actions fit in with the film’s overall realism. The rest of the cast all blend into their roles marvelously, looking as ordinary as movie stars can look these days. Thirlby is well on her way to be the Thora Birch cool-girl crush of the moment, and she brings a liveliness that is often totally absent in the token girlfriend role.
Snow Angels is an indie for people who love indies, meandering and wordy and, yes, sometimes slow. But its sadness and despair is suffused with great hope and humanity, making it far more than just two hours spent wallowing in other peoples’ sadness. It’s the same aesthetic that has made Green a modest success thus far, and possibly what will propel him to super-stardom with Pineapple Express. But with his innate understanding of how humans work at their lowest, we should hope that he doesn't stray too far from his roots. The quirk and snark-laden indie filmmakers of today need an earnest dreamer like him to keep them in line.