No one ever talks about the weather in “Snow Angels.” The film is set in a quaint, ordinary Pennsylvania town, the kind of place where frozen ponds and high snow banks seem like a permanent part of the landscape. The locals are used to it. The cold makes everything quieter, softer, more brittle. Very little of the story relies on these atmospheric conditions — most of the plot could happen just as easily in Miami — but the hushed chilliness adds immeasurably to the film’s impact. The weather is a silent but crucial supporting character.
You have probably already got a good idea of what “Snow Angels” is like, and telling you that it was directed and written by David Gordon Green (adapting Stewart O’Nan’s 1994 novel) might make the picture clearer. With the contemplative and emotionally fraught “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” and “Undertow” under his belt, Green comes to “Snow Angels” having already mastered the art of intimate portraits of small-town rural life. Here he expands on his previous themes: the yearning for bigger things, the fragility of relationships, the subtle sensation of being trapped both geographically and spirituality.
We meet a multitude of folks, their connections to one another gradually becoming apparent over the course of the film. The film’s flash-forward prologue has already revealed that there will be gunshots fired before the story is over, and that unsettling fact hangs like a fog as the story unfolds.
There’s Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano), a somewhat shy but mostly normal high school kid with a crush on the geek-chic new girl, Lila (Olivia Thirlby) Arthur’s parents (Jeanetta Arnette and Griffin Dunne) are splitting up, a common theme in this town. Arthur works at a Chinese restaurant with Annie (Kate Beckinsale), the town beauty, only a few years older than Arthur and his former babysitter. She married her high school sweetheart and has since split up with him. His name is Glenn (Sam Rockwell), and he once attempted suicide. Now he is superficially a born-again Christian, unemployed, unreliable, living with his parents, and desperately trying to reconcile with Annie.
Annie has already moved on, though — to a married man named Nate (Nicky Katt). His wife is a friend of Annie’s. He’s a dog for cheating on her, and Annie’s a dog for enabling him. But that’s the problem with insular small-town life: Everyone has a history with everyone.
Then there is a tragic event, unrelated to the gunshots — we still have those to look forward to! — that dramatically impacts the community in general and a few people specifically, bringing many of the underlying themes to the surface. Glenn has wrecked his marriage and his life. Arthur’s parents are messed up, and Arthur is still young enough to hope he can prevent such disasters from happening to him. The wreckage of broken relationships is scattered all over the film. Everyone is sorry all the time. People say “I love you” a lot, but we never hear anyone say “I love you, too.” (The most awkward example: Annie’s mom saying “I love you” over the phone, just as Annie is hanging up on her.)
All the performances are natural and un-showy, with Sam Rockwell — normally a more comic actor — the standout as Glenn the trainwreck. Despite the film’s general tone of poignant melancholy, there are light moments here and there — glimmers of sunshine that break up the ice now and then. And though much of what happens in it is sad, it’s not a “depressing” movie. There’s a certain beauty in the bleakness, in the stark, snowy landscapes, and in the characters whose lives are just as barren.
A- (1 hr., 46 min.; )