The first half of David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels" unfolds in the looming shadow of an awful tragedy. The audience knows something bad is coming because of the gunshots at the end of the opening scene, after which we are pulled back to a series of events beginning "weeks earlier." But even without this framing device, it would be hard to mistake the mood of dread, defeat and lurking violence.
"Snow Angels" takes place in one of those American towns where the sky is gray, the air is cold, and the people are miserable.
Arthur (Michael Angarano) is a high school student -- seen practicing with the school marching band when those shots ring out -- whose parents are separating. Annie (Kate Beckinsale), his former baby sitter and now a co-worker at the local Chinese restaurant, has split with her husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), whose erratic embrace of religion seems more like a symptom of his instability than a balm for his tormented soul.
Annie is sleeping with Nate (Nicky Katt), who is married to her friend Barb (Amy Sedaris). Glenn and Annie have a young daughter, Tara (Grace Hudson), who seems to be in mortal danger every time she's on camera, and even -- or perhaps especially -- when she isn't.
The wintry pall of fatalism that hangs over all of them deadens the possibility of melodrama, which might have given "Snow Angels" a touch of lurid life. This is not an updated "Peyton Place," but rather the kind of self-enclosed, hard-bitten American place fashionable in American fiction of the 1970s and '80s and in American independent cinema since.
To his credit Green, an N.C. School of the Arts graduate, tries to break with the dour conventions of this glum, unadorned style of realism. For one thing, somewhat remarkably, "Snow Angels" is frequently quite funny -- not in a glib or mocking way, but in the way that life, even at its worst, can be. Even in despair and under duress, people make jokes, say silly things and even laugh.
Katt and Sedaris are especially helpful in this regard, since they are able to suggest ridiculousness without making fun of the characters they are playing. And Rockwell has a similar gift, though Glenn's self-undermining jokiness -- an aspect of the earnest optimism that seems to guarantee eventual failure and disappointment -- is more pathetic than amusing.
As for Beckinsale, her skill and discipline cannot overcome the sense that she is an exotic species transplanted into this grim ecosystem. Hard as she works to convince us otherwise, it's a stretch to believe that a woman with the kind of poised confidence in her own beauty she manifests would wind up with an underachieving mouth breather like Glenn.
Somewhat more credible is the sweet, tentative romance that springs up between Arthur and a nerdy girl named Lila (Olivia Thirlby, who played Juno's best pal). Angarano suggests a less frantic Shia LaBeouf, and his scenes with Thirlby (and also with Griffin Dunne, who plays his wayward father) are at once believably inarticulate and shyly eloquent. Arthur and Lila seem to dwell in a different movie from their sorry neighbors, an adolescent dream that Green appears to have been more comfortable directing than the sad tale of marital recrimination he must negotiate.
He is a collector of delicate, awkward moments, a writer and filmmaker whose affection for eccentricity is much more than the usual taste for quirkiness.
For a film full of murder, jealousy and fatalism, "Snow Angels" feels curiously small, and its impact diminishes as it nears its terrible conclusion.