Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Film Review #125: Snow Cake
Director: Marc Evans
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Carrie-Ann Moss, Emily Hampshire

Let’s admit it: when some of us think of Sigourney Weaver, we think of Ellen Ripley in the four sci-fi Alien movies. Each with a different director, the Alien films came out over two decades – 1979, 1986, 1992 and 1997 – with room left in the story for a possible fifth episode. Who can forget the athletic, courageous Ripley in Aliens – the second film and my favorite – clad in her giant forklift, challenging the acid-drooling monster to a showdown on that spaceship deck to protect the little orphan girl Newt? If not for Ripley, it’s impossible to imagine many films since with capable female action heroes.

Ripley’s rescue of Newt made her a mother – opposed by the female monster guarding her own offspring. The unfolding saga played on the nature of motherhood (both natural and surrogate), species mutation and mixing, its effects on identity and the meaning of “human.” Weaver’s Ripley held that elaborate tale together. Weaver’s since displayed a brilliant comic streak in films like Working Girl (1988), Heart Breakers (2001) and Holes (2003) and gone deeply dramatic too, as in 1997’s The Ice Storm – her roles have often commented on motherhood in some form.

In the past week two DVDs of films shot in 2005 have hit local rental shops about mothers who’ve lost a child and their life-changing encounters with another parent grieving the same tragedy. The more conventional is Hilary Braugher’s Stephanie Daley, a Sundance Institute project. Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), a forensic psychologist, consults about a high school student who gave birth in a ladies room stall on a school ski trip. Swinton’s character is herself pregnant again, after losing a baby, and her marriage strained. Amber Tamblyn plays the title role – her next move after the end of Joan of Arcadia. This film addresses the loss of an infant in a straightforward tragic way. We understand the way in which this story is being told and we can focus on the acting – quite good – and the shape of the story-telling, the directing, the way the movie’s shot, also quite good. The DVD is generous for a writer-director’s first feature film, with a making-of short and commentary track. Stephanie Daley is a sad, sad little film – never aiming for megaplex status to begin with – but we should look out for more work from Braugher.

Then there is Snow Cake, a joint Canadian/UK production with Weaver as Linda Freeman, shot along the highways of western Ontario and the little town of Wawa on the frigid, remote shore of Lake Superior. Weaver’s acting chops are given, when we see her on-screen the mom thread familiar. But a film that successfully combines autism, romantic comedy and a parent grieving the death of their only child?

Like Stephanie Daley, Snow Cake’s theatrical run was brief. Welsh filmmaker Marc Evans directed – he’s now at work on a film due out next year about poet Dylan Thomas’ wife, Caitlin, with Miranda Richardson – from the first screenplay by British comedy writer Angela Pell. Pell has small son who’s autistic and wrote the part of Alex Hughes for Alan Rickman, familiar as Professor Severus Snape from the Harry Potter movies.

This background mix may help explain how this wonderful little movie’s parts fall gracefully together. Alex Hughes heads toward Winnipeg through rural Ontario, just out of prison for killing the drunk driver who hit Alex’s teen-aged son – on the boy’s way to meet Alex for the first time. In a truck stop, he reluctantly gives a ride to Vivienne (the talented Montréal actress Emily Hampshire).

Vivienne is Linda’s daughter, hitch-hiking back to her mother’s house. Purple-haired, adolescent, generous, chatty to distraction, a bit loopy, Vivienne is all her name implies –vividly, strikingly alive – and it’s Alex’s bad luck to be driving when a trucker broadsides them, the crash killing Vivienne. Alex follows her body to Wawa, stays with Linda to arrange the funeral, engages in brief romance with the next door neighbor Maggie (Vancouver’s Carrie-Ann Moss, Trinity from The Matrix).

Linda is autistic, cheats at Scrabble, wants Alex to stay till Tuesday to put out the garbage, feeds the dog bananas, adores “sparklies,” is happiest munching on snow in her backyard. For someone who “doesn’t do social” Linda is keenly observant of those who do. She advises Alex to get different eye-glasses, for example, because she judges the ones her has to be unfriendly. “You neuro-typicals seem to value friends,” she tells him, “and I’m only trying to help you get some.” Pell endows Linda with a stream of laugh-aloud zingers, borne of her own self-reliance and self-knowledge, her lack of social decorum and her own generous self. If Weaver's performance at times seems a bit overly stylized, that may come of the fact that autism itself contains an element of performance in order to get along with others. Alex emerges from his frozen grief in her quirky company. Go to school on this one.

This review appeared in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 9/20/07, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.