This film is compelling in its storytelling, peeling back layer after layer of human emotion, until all that is left is that which is primal. Beautifully nuanced, if somewhat ponderously slow at times, this film is not for the action oriented viewer. It is a film for the more patient and discerning viewer, the one who will allow the story to unfold in its own good time. It is this viewer who will derive the most enjoyment from this cinematic gem.
The story is really several stories that are threaded into one tapestry of events. The main thread involves a school bus accident that resulted in the death of fourteen children in a small British Columbia town in Canada. A big, city slicker lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), waltzes into town on the heels of the tragedy to see if a class action suit, arising out of the bus accident, lies against someone, anyone for huge monetary damages. As Stevens interviews those prospective clients, his own troubles are revealed to the viewer and center around his drug addicted daughter, who deftly manipulates him. Scenes with his daughter, which suggest just how out of control his daughter's life is, correlate nicely to the way the lives of the townspeople have spun out of control since the bus accident that took so many young lives. Stevens is as bereft as the townspeople who have lost their children. The lawyer's feeling of guilt over his daughter's seemingly hopeless condition, mirrors the hopelessness felt by the townspeople in light of the overwhelming tragedy that has befallen them.
The town has its secrets, however. One of them involves an attractive, and talented teenager, Nichole (Sarah Polley). When the viewer first sees her, with her is a long haired, seemingly supportive and tender man. For some inexplicable reason the viewer may take him for her boyfriend, even though all they are doing is eating ice cream, only to discover that he is actually her father. As does the lawyer, Nichole must contend with a very personal and secret tragedy in her young life.
The brief scene that makes clear the true nature of Nichole's relationship with her father is shown in a way that belies its inherent corruption. It seamlessly transitions its way into the film, and the viewer really has to think twice about that which the viewer has just seen, as the setting seems almost romantic, a setting that belies the profound putrescence of the reality of the scene.
The threads of the film's story are woven in such a way that time and scene shifts are somewhat abrupt and may seem a little disjointed to the viewer, which has the net effect of keeping the viewer a little off balance. The tenor of the film, however, is set to perfection by Nichole's monotone voice-over reading of Robert Browning's lyrical poem, "The Pied Piper of Hamlin". Her reading gives the viewer a feeling of alienation and despair. It also leaves the viewer wondering whether the pied piper is an allusion to her father or the lawyer. Watch the film, and you be the judge.
Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, and this cast of mostly unknowns, give wonderful performances worthy of note, compelling and moving. The film, as does an onion, has many layers to be peeled back. It is a film to be savored and viewed again and again. "The Sweet Hereafter" is sweet, indeed.
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