Stomping about on a frozen football field, shy trombonist Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano) and his high-school bandmates fumble their way through a rehearsal for an upcoming game. Unclenching his jaw, the conductor, Mr. Chervenick, unleashes a peevish motivational critique of their Peter Gabriel number: “PEOPLE!? DO YOU HAVE A SLEDGEHAMMER IN YOUR HEART!?”
More than one false note is sounded in this portentous opening to Snow Angels, an unusually blunt melodrama by David Gordon Green, melodious poet of such sentimental delicacies as George Washington and All the Real Girls. There’s no mention of “sledgehammer” in the celebrated debut of novelist Stewart O’Nan, from which Snow Angels has been adapted, but they agree on what comes next: a pair of gunshots, followed by a flashback narrative to account for them. O’Nan discloses the nature of this catastrophe on his fourth page; Green keeps mum until the end, charging his tale with an effective (if manipulative) aura of suspense.
Snow Angels‘ cumbrous metaphorical overture develops into a full-blown symphony as the film cross-cuts between the emotional bludgeoning of two unhappy couples. Louise Parkinson (Jeannetta Arnette) is splitting with Don (Griffin Dunne), a self-absorbed philander and science teacher at their son’s school. Across town and miles further down the path of estrangement, Annie Marchand (Kate Beckinsale) has a restraining order against her alcoholic, suicidal, Jesus-freak ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell). Caught in the middle are Annie’s young daughter and adolescent Arthur, whose burgeoning romance with Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a quirky art chick, complicates the dramatic counterpoint of Snow Angels.
As always, Green’s sympathies lie with his melancholy youngsters and, happily, his own heart is full of subtle instruments. The affair between Arthur and Lila is beautifully played—tender, restrained, honest, and good-humored, graced with wry, pitch-perfect dialogue that nails the defensive snark and vulnerability of the Juno generation. “I like your shoes,” Arthur offers without the slightest sarcasm. “What’s wrong with them?” Lila snaps back.
Snow Angels exhibits a mellowing—if not full abandonment—of Green’s trademark emo-Malick mannerisms. His camera can’t entirely resist an ersatz-’70s art effect here and there, but by and large he plays things straight, erratic as they become. What saves this heavy, heavy material from sinking into the chill, familiar turf of the Small-Town Midwinter Tragedy is his practiced ear for verbal idiosyncrasy and off-kilter conversation rhythms. Scenes tend to end a beat or two early, syncopated by a bit of whimsy or deadpan that skews the immediate tone and gives the movie a jittery forward thrust. Resolution is all the more satisfying, then, when the script calls for a sustained dramatic payoff or big emotional crescendo.
The film feels transitional for Green—one foot in the moody, interiorized indieverse of his previous work, the other taking a big step toward more conventional projects. In shaking off his influences and affections, will he shed imagination and intuition as well? Snow Angels answers—with apt hesitancy—probably not.