[Screen It]


(1997) (Ian Holm, Sarah Polley) (R)

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Drama: A big city lawyer tries to help not only the citizens of a small-town after a tragic school bus accident, but also himself by exorcising his own inner demons.
A big city lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (IAN HOLM), arrives in the small rural town of Sam Dent, British Columbia after a tragic school bus accident has left the townspeople in shocked mourning. Knowledgeable about losing one's offspring — his daughter, Zoe (CAERTHAN BANKS), is a drug addict beyond help — Stevens decides to represent the mourning families in a law suit. He begins interviewing both those who lost children in the crash, and those who survived the accident.

He starts with Wendell (MAURY CHAYKIN) and Risa Walker (ALBERTA WATSON), the owners of a motel who lost their son, as well as the middle-aged, guilt-ridden bus driver, Dolores Driscoll (GABRIELLE ROSE). They agree to have him represent them, as do Wanda (ARSINÉE KHANJIAN) and Hartley Otto (EARL PASTKO), but Billy Ansell (BRUCE GREENWOOD), the widowed father of two children killed in the crash, is adamant not to sign with him.

Finally there's Nicole Burnell (SARAH POLLEY), an aspiring student singer who's now confined to a wheelchair, much to the dismay of her parents, Sam (TOM McCAMUS) and Mary (BROOKE JOHNSON). As Stevens works to help the townspeople, he begins to uncover the community's darker secrets that, along with Stevens' persistence, begin to fragment the already besieged town.

Not unless they like "art house" films or have heard the good press about this picture. Preteens will have absolutely no interest in it.
For sexuality and some language.
  • IAN HOLM plays a big city lawyer whose problems with his own daughter drive his actions to "help" the townspeople. At times it's questionable, however, whether he's trying to help them, himself, or just further his career/make money.
  • BRUCE GREENWOOD plays a widowed father who's now lost his two children as well. He's understandably bitter, and takes out his aggression by being uncooperative with Stevens.
  • SARAH POLLEY plays a teenager who finds herself wheelchair bound after the accident. Before that, she was involved in some sort of incestuous relationship with her father.


    OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
    Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "The Sweet Hereafter" is a moving and disturbing look at the aftermath of a sudden, horrendous accident. For the people of the small town of Sam Dent, that's the first insult. The second comes in the form of a lawyer who digs up the townspeople's darker secrets that eventually do more damage than the tragic accident itself. Part drama, part mystery, this film is often compelling and manages to survive a loss of plot momentum toward the end.

    Director Atom Egoyan (1994's "Exotica") has crafted an interestingly structured film that spans three separate, but highly related time lines. One deals with the events leading up to the accident itself, another shows Stevens working his case, and the last deals with the lawyer several years after everything has concluded. By structuring the film this way, Egoyan keeps the audience guessing about what really happened by presenting us with what nearly becomes a murder mystery story.

    The film's more much than that, however, as it also delves into the townspeople's secrets as well as the lawyer's own troubled private life. By layering the film with many subplots, Egoyan creates a more densely interesting story than what would have concerned just the bus accident itself. The film is essentially about the bond between adults and children and we see many varying versions of that. There's Stevens and his daughter Zoe (both as child and young adult), the many townspeople who've lost their children, the bus driver and the students she saw as her kids, and the incestuous relationship between Nicole and her father. Together they form an interesting symbolic tapestry of parents "losing" their kids (to death, estrangement, or simply growing up).

    Egoyan, adapting and working from Russell Banks' novel (itself loosely based on real life events), creates several intensely mesmerizing moments that obliterate any sense of being in a darkened theater. Some obviously deal with the different characters' reactions to the tragic event. The most effective, however, is a story told by Holm's character about his young daughter having an allergic reaction to spider bites and what he was prepared to do to save her life. His retelling of that moment will leave you spellbound, and while it's quite compelling (without ever really seeing anything -- a mark of good storytelling), it's also a sweet look at what had been an innocent time in both his and his daughter's lives. That moment sharply contrasts his more current problems dealing with his drug-addicted daughter who's no longer that little girl he could save once upon a time.

    It doesn't hurt that Egoyan has cast British actor Ian Holm as his lead. An Oscar nominee for his best supporting performance in 1981's "Chariots of Fire" (and recently appearing in last year's "Big Night"), Holm creates a complex character with many behavioral levels. Although on the surface he appears to be a high-priced lawyer simply smelling a lucrative lawsuit, it's those moments where he must deal with his daughter that show his more human side. By seeing those scenes, we better understand his motivation to help the townspeople. While his daughter is still alive, he too — like the townspeople — has lost his child forever, and the thought of possible negligence related to the bus accident infuriates him. When he finds there is no responsible villain — just as there's none for his daughter's condition — he's crushed to an ever greater extent. At times an ambulance chaser and at others an emotionally devastated father, Holm and his character are continuously mesmerizing to watch.

    Delivering a more subdued, but just as compelling performance is eighteen-year-old Sarah Polley (who also appeared in Egoyan's "Exotica"). Her take as the coming of age Nicole perfectly balances the fine line of young adulthood mixed with the trappings of a more innocent childhood. A strongly written character whose readings of passages from Robert Browning's poem, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," create a haunting mood over the film, this is an impressive performance from an up and coming star. We expect good things from her in future roles. The rest of the supporting cast are also to be commended for their fine performances and their roles are all quite believable, particularly Bruce Greenwood as the widowed and now childless father, and Gabrielle Rose as the injured, but guilt-ridden school bus driver.

    While Egoyan's direction and script will have you glued to your seat waiting to find out what happened, the film does lose some momentum once we actually see the accident (from a distance in a horrendous flashback moment). From that point on the mystery element begins to evaporate and the story does begin to feel a bit long as it eventually winds its way toward the conclusion. It's not a horrendous loss, and the plot's focus on the characters and their interwoven problems take up most of the slack. One only wishes that the payoff of the eventual revealing of the truth about the accident had a bit more kick after such a big buildup.

    Of course the film is purposefully about much more than just the accident. It's about the town, its people, and their reaction to both that horrible event and the lawyer's uncovering of their secrets. Egoyan's direction and storytelling are first-rate while cinematographer Paul Sarossy's lens work is captivating. Whether focusing on Holm's pained expression, capturing the sad life of these people or the coldness of the wintery mountain landscape, the film is never boring to watch. Likewise, Mychael Danna's score is equally compelling and at times haunting.

    Some viewers will find the proceedings slow at times and others may find the jumping through time confusing (you quickly get used to it), while the sad lives of these townspeople might be a bit overpowering to many others. That's intentional, but it may be a bit much for some who won't be able to "enjoy" Egoyan's storytelling style. If you can get past the somber, and often depressing plot elements, you'll find a masterful piece of film making. We found "The Sweet Hereafter" nearly always compelling and thus give it an 8 out of 10.

    While it's doubtful many kids will want to see this film, here's a quick look at the content. We see bits of a sexual encounter (and an affair at that), and do see the woman's bare breasts as well as a brief glimpse of female full frontal nudity. A teenage girl and her father have some sort of incestuous relationship, but we never see anything more than them kissing. There isn't much profanity, but what's there does include 5 "f" words. Of course there's also the material related to the bus accident and the grieving families that might upset some viewers. If you or someone in your family wants to see this film, we suggest that you look through the content first.

  • A woman on a plane drinks champagne.
  • Stevens finishes a drink on a plane.
  • Zoe is a serious drug addict, but we never see her using any drugs.
  • There's some brief talk about a man getting drunk and beating his wife (not seen).
  • None.
  • Some may see Stevens' actions as having both as he doesn't always seem to have the townspeople's interests as his only incentive (since he tells them his fee is one-third of whatever they win).
  • Nicole and her father have some sort of incestuous relationship (we see them kissing).
  • Zoe is a drug addict and only calls her father when she needs money.
  • Billy and Risa (she's married) have an affair.
  • Wendell tells Risa (his wife), "Shut your big fat mouth" after they talk with Stevens.
  • Nicole lies about what really caused the bus accident.
  • We briefly see the bus as it crashes over an embankment, careens down onto a lake, and finally, but quickly, breaks through the surface and sinks.
  • Billy briefly threatens to beat up Stevens, but never does.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Shut up," "Shut your big fat mouth," "Piss," and "Bastards."
  • None.
  • There are a few scenes with just a bit of ominous music in them.
  • None.
  • At least 5 "f" words, 1 "s" word, 2 damns, 1 S.O.B., and 1 use each of "G-damn," "Oh Jesus," and "Christ" as exclamations.
  • We briefly see Stevens' wife's bare breast as she sleeps (in flashback).
  • Wendell briefly states that a woman in town sleeps around and would "go down for a pat on the head and a fistful of peanuts."
  • We briefly hear about a bar in town called "The Spread Eagle."
  • Billy and Risa meet in a motel room to have an affair. She removes her coat and we see her in her bra and underwear. Later we see him remove her underwear (no nudity) and it's implied that they have sex. We then see her full frontal nudity (brief) and she then lies nude on the bed (but we don't see anything due to the positioning of her body). Later we again see her bare breasts as she dresses.
  • Billy smokes a few times.
  • Some people on the street smoke.
  • Obviously many families grieve over the deaths of their or others' children.
  • Nicole and her father have some sort of incestuous relationship (we see them kissing).
  • Stevens must constantly deal with having an estranged and heavily drug addicted daughter (who's out living on the streets).
  • Billy is a widowed father and we briefly hear about his wife's death.
  • Coping with sudden, unexpected deaths.
  • Incest.
  • None.

  • Reviewed December 28, 1997

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