Brooding small-town tragedy and blossoming young love are the emotional poles of "Snow Angels," a drama that finds a delicate balance between the consolations of romance and the bitterness of its failure. David Gordon Green, previously an original and inventive director of Southern tales, moves north to the wintry Rust Belt, capturing the environment and the people in all their shades.
The film opens with a squadron of young people going through the motions as a high school marching band wobbles through a pre-game rehearsal. Their cantankerous director offers an absurd pep talk about needing "a sledgehammer in your heart" to play a Peter Gabriel tune. Then, with the echoing sound of a far-off gunshot and the shocked silence that follows, the hammer of doom truly drops.
The story backtracks a few weeks to eavesdrop on several relationships in the process of emerging and splintering. Annie and Glenn (Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell in career-best performances) are separated, but weekend custody handoffs of 4-year-old Tara (Grace Hudson) bring them into tense contact. Glenn, anxious, temperamental and erratically employed, has taken a sudden interest in Jesus, but seems more concerned with petitioning for a miraculous reconciliation with his ex than in genuine spiritual rebirth. Annie scrapes by waitressing at a Chinese restaurant while she conducts a motel-room affair with a trusting friend's husband (scene-stealing character actor Nicky Katt as a lout for the ages).
Studying her with shy affection is busboy Arthur (Michael Angarano), a good kid who grapples with his parents' divorce while finding romance with Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a witty, geek-cute new classmate. Each couple, their hopes rising or foundering, could be a past or future view of the others.
"Snow Angels" is more than a stale slice of indie misery-mongering, thanks to Green's excellent cast and his deft way with vignettes that are mortifying, yet morbidly funny. Green can swing from "Napoleon Dynamite" territory to pathos in a heartbeat. Glenn, who has a job as a carpet salesman thanks only to the tolerance of his born-again boss, fumbles through an exquisitely awkward sales pitch to a pair of women who are clearly not breeders, asking them whether they have children and quizzing them about their religious beliefs.
Rockwell finds both the sympathetic and the ludicrous sides of this lost soul, just as Beckinsale captures the wage-slave weariness of an economically and emotionally marginalized former beauty queen. Their tense body language whenever they meet -- darting eyes, stiffly crossed arms, an invisible zone of emotional land mines between them -- is more eloquent than reams of dialogue. A cameo by Amy Sedaris as Annie's take-no-guff co-worker gives the somber story a needed comic boost.
"Snow Angels" is solid work but difficult viewing, its moments of piercing sadness only partly mitigated by passages of human connection and compassion. It earns its shattering finale, but audiences being roughed up by daily life might not relish the prospect of lining up to pay for another dose of fatalism.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186