The Sweet Hereafter

1997, Movie, R, 110 mins


Piercing, sweetly melancholy and acted with a breathtaking eye for nuance, Atom Egoyan's first film from another writer's source material is proof positive that Egoyan the screenwriter is the greatest enemy of Egoyan the director. Russell Banks's novel gives the director material as rich and multileveled as his images, and the result is deeply moving without being sentimental or manipulative. Single father Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), still mourning his wife's death from cancer, drives behind a school bus. His two children stand at the back window waving, as they do every day. Then, as he watches, the bus slides quietly off the snowy road, first coming to rest on a frozen lake, and then sinking as the ice cracks beneath its weight. Banks' and Egoyan's story circles restlessly around fragments of this image, unable to leave it behind or let it fade into the background. Fourteen children die in the accident -- including Ansell's -- and others are injured: the small town of Sam Dent is devastated. Lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) arrives in the wake of the tragedy, promising that if enough of the townspeople agree, he can file a class-action suit that will in some small way help compensate them for their loss. As he interviews the grieving parents, Sam Dent's secrets begin to come into focus: unhappy marriages, alcoholism, petty and bitter squabbles, clandestine affairs... even incest. Stevens' case will rest on the testimony of intelligent, well-liked teenager Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), a talented singer paralyzed in the accident, but he -- distracted, perhaps, by his own troubles with drug-addicted daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks) -- fails to notice that Nicole is more observant and considerably less self-deluded than most of the town's adults. Icily beautiful and painfully clear-sighted, this disturbing and yet strangely optimistic film is an extraordinary, haunting mix of poetry and heartbreak. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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