If you’ve ever seen a snow angel, you will notice that it is just an imprint of what once was. It is the result of doing a jumping jack-like motion while lying in the snow. An act of play is turned into a work of art: an image of what was left behind. And while it has a certain beauty it signifies what has been lost. One can only imagine what came before and the story that might have followed. Snow angels are fragile. A small wind or warm weather can make them disappear as quickly as they were made.
The defining moment in Snow Angels is the disappearance of five-year-old Olive. This is the culminating event that brings the film’s characters to their breaking points. They must reflect on their future and life’s responsibilities that weigh them down. The imprint of what is missing has a lasting effect; it never quite fades away.
As with David Gordon Green‘s previous films, Snow Angels is set in a small town. Green is an up and coming auteur in Hollywood who directed and adapted the 1994 novel by Stewart O’Nan. Originally from Texas, he graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts and his first major, although independent, was the film George Washington, released in 2000. Green then wrote and directed what I consider to be his best work, All the Real Girls. Snow Angels is a transitional work for Green who is making a name for himself in Hollywood. His next project is titled Pineapple Express, a Judd Apatow production starring Seth Rogen.
What I enjoy most about Green’s filmmaking is his in-depth exploration of the complexity and fragility of human relationships. Snow Angels continues this tradition, creatively weaving together two distinct, yet connected, stories.
Arthur (Michael Angarano) is an average high school student, just trying to survive school, friends, working as a bus boy, and the recent separation of his parents. As he develops a friendship with Lila (Olivia Thirlby) his hope for lasting love is unsettled by seeing his parents grow apart. His doubts are magnified as he observes the events in the life of Annie (Kate Beckinsale), with whom he works at a restaurant and who was also his babysitter.
Annie is dealing with her recent divorce from a short-tempered, alcoholic husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell). They have a young daughter, and they are both struggling to find work and having to rely on their parents to get by. Glenn has decided he needs to change. He attempts to sober up and takes on a simple, Christian faith. But Glenn’s faith is not about selflessness and forgiveness as he obsesses about the past and wallows in blaming himself and Annie for the problems in his life.
When Annie and Glenn’s daughter, Olive, disappears, the small community gets involved in the search. Arthur and a friend find Olive and this discovery becomes the crisis point for reflection on the fragility of his own life. For Annie and Glenn, the loss of their daughter illuminates an emptiness in their lives that they had previously overlooked and ignored. The fragility of their relationship confronts the reality of loss, and both enter a valley of hopelessness.
This film gives life to a metaphor of relationships as snow angels. Relationships are fragile. They are not made without risking crisis and change—the kind of crisis and change that obscure the imprints that relationships make on our lives and brush away the meaning of our stories. Moreover, relationships are vital to our lives as we long for intimacy with others. Most importantly, honest relationships are not earned—they are a gift from living a life that truly cares for others. Snow Angels unfolds the complexity of relationships: both the hope of human relationships and the devastation that comes with a failure to forgive ourselves and receive the gift of beautiful and fragile intimacy in knowing another.
Do I recommend this film, or suggest that it is a “must-see” film? “Maybe.” Based on my constructed scale of “1-7,” I give this film a ‘6.’ However, if you are interested in the large and critical questions about the search and struggle for redemption, then this film provides an artful and honest picture of how we hope and lose hope for redemption when we cannot find anything to hang on to but ourselves. The film’s two stories take two very different paths: one to tragedy; the other points to the hopeful possibilities of love.