It’s been a long time since I saw a first-run movie with no one else in the theater. As a matter of fact, I can tell you exactly when this last happened: in 1974, when I snuck out of whatever I was actually watching with my parents (I think it was Benji) to peek in on an adjacent theater playing Earthquake. Someone had convinced the projectionist to go ahead and roll the thing even though no one had bought a ticket for it so I sat in the empty theater and, for a minute, enjoyed the thrill of having a movie shown solely for me.
Snow Day played to a nearly empty house when I saw it last week. If this is happening a lot, it might make Snow Day a tantalizing target for that same demographic I belonged to in 1974 kids who switch theaters and thus buck the system in little ways, looking for movies that will buck the system right along with them and at the same time bestow a feeling of privilege and power. And indeed, Snow Day is a movie about bucking systems, if only temporarily. For, as its title suggests, Snow Day presents only a transient challenge to the suburban status quo and to cinematic cliches. Just as grownups have to go back to work and the kids must return to school when the snow clears, when the lights go up on Snow Day, it turns out that none of its challenges to the system have any sort of permanence.
The system Snow Day really loves to buck is America’s oppressive regime of state-sponsored education. The movie’s American Beauty-style opening (an aerial shot of a Syracuse suburb, accompanied by a voice-over that explains how snow is created) introduces the movie’s central conflict in twenty-five words or less. The narrator here is a just-pubescent Hal Branston (Mark Webber), and he and the children of the Branston family want a day off from school. By God, they should be able to get one, too, in upstate New York in the dead of winter. Unfortunately for them, Mother Nature has offered its complicity in America’s conspiracy to educate its young by giving Syracuse one of the most unseasonably warm winters on record.
We know within the first five minutes that Syracuse will eventually get its snow day. The snow falls copiously and we watch the Branston family spend their newfound free time. Mom (Jean Smart) tries to get to work despite a five foot snowdrift in her driveway. Dad (Chevy Chase), a weatherman on a local tv station, tries to win the credit he deserves for being the first to predict the storm. The adolescent Hal chases the prettiest girl in school, and the youngest sister Nat (Zena Grey), well, all she wants is a second snow day. Although Hal gives us the voice-over, the movie is equally Nat’s, preoccupied with her quest to sabotage the evil Snowplowman (Chris Elliott) before he can reestablish normalcy by plowing the town’s streets and thereby forcing all the kids back to school.
Snowplowman is a typically unappealing kids’-movie villain he snorts habitually, abducts children, and has bad teeth except for his investment in the normal order of things. The kids’-movie antagonists I remember tend to subvert the established order. But Snowplowman is trying to put things back the way they were; for all his gross-out personal habits, maybe he’s just a nice guy who likes his job of making the streets passable after a bad storm. Snow Day doesn’t see it that way, though. The movie roots for Nat as she undercuts and abuses Snowplowman at every turn, eventually committing grand theft auto by stealing his plow and using it to return all the cleared snow to the streets again. At this point Nat ceases to be a gadfly impeding Snowplowman’s progress and becomes a deliberate, lawless saboteur. But who can blame her? Snow days are cool.
This is what I mean by saying that Snow Day wants to buck the system. Its children commit quaint but borderline criminal acts that undermine the status quo of suburban society. They try to keep the school closed not only by assaulting Snowplowman, but also by pinning down the school principal (Damien Young) for the entire film, targeting him with a constant, withering barrage of snowballs. Something about this is kind of refreshing. Kids’ movies rarely offer up such unembarrassed endorsements of truancy.
Refreshing, also, is the way the movie approaches Hal’s pursuit of the school’s preeminent sex goddess, Claire Bonner (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Hal is aided in his courtship of Claire by his friend and confidant Lane Leonard (Schuyler Fisk), who, in one key scene, approaches Claire in the company of the latter’s “in” friends to arrange a meeting between her and the love-struck Hal. Predictably enough, Claire’s supercool clique is incredibly bitchy to Lane, and also predictably enough, Lane herself is secretly in love with Hal. When Snow Day turns its attention from Nat to Hal, it also transforms, in broad terms, from a children’s comedy to a romantic one. Through Hal’s dilemma deciding whether Claire or Lane is more deserving of his affections the movie addresses a question many romantic comedies grapple with in one way or another: is love about blind attraction to physical beauty or about finding a companion, “someone,” Lane says, “you can stand to be around for ten minutes at a time”?
Here Snow Day borrows from a pantheon of high school romances, from The Rage: Carrie 2 to 10 Things I Hate About You, in which the protagonists measure the value of companionship against the value of physical beauty and invariably decide in the former’s favor. Tied with this is a broad critique of high school clique-ishness. The plain girl is something of an outcast, though generally she is kind, generous, or artistic, and possesses emotional substance, and though the natural beauty or her friends are often cruel and dismissive, she is invariably a social butterfly. Snow Day‘s press kit explains Claire’s popularity by deifying her as a “vision of teen perfection who walks the earth only to torment the tenth graders who will never have her.” Really, though, how a movie character gets ranked in this hierarchy is a matter more of dress and behavior than of some superhuman, unearthly beauty.
You may need to delve no further than the high school movie you last saw to witness this principle in action. The last one I saw was The Rage: Carrie 2, in which Emily Bergl, the movie’s gorgeous misfit (playing a relative of the original film’s career-plain Sissy Spacek), is supposed to be a homely rebel. Because Rachel wears black, has a tattoo, and listens to Marilyn Manson, the movie tries to convince us that she’s also funny-looking. What’s refreshing about Snow Day is that Hal and Lane really are both shy of conventional attractiveness, at least by Hollywood standards in which high school movie love interests, even the moody ones, tend to resemble fashion models. Where it would be perfectly easy to pull 10 Things I Hate About You‘s trick casting the outcast couple with performers who could just as easily play prom queens and kings the next time out Snow Day bucks the system again. Though again, it’s just in a little way.
Also funny-looking in Snow Day, naturally, is Chevy Chase as Tom Branston, Hal and Nat’s father. Chevy wears a Hawaiian lei during Syracuse’s unseasonable warm spell, and dons a full-body penguin suit when the mercury heads south. Tom is doing this at the bidding of his hard-nosed boss (Pam Grier), who is trying everything she can think of to make him competitive with the region’s #1 meteorologist, debonair Chad Symmonz (John Schneider, once the hunky Bo Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard). Of the two Tom is the more capable, being the one to successfully predict Syracuse’s freak snowstorm. But on television, a medium that tends to prefer image and charisma over competence, the vacuous Symmons is far more popular.
The contrast between Tom and Symmons is much like the one between Lane and Claire, a facile separation of image and substance that not only prefers the latter but implies the two are incompatible. When Tina dresses Tom like a buffoon, his meteorological agility becomes obscure. He predicts the snowstorm but no one will give him credit for it since he does so while wearing a ridiculous rubber duck.
In putting the audience on Tom’s side and opening Symmonz up for eventual public ridicule, Snow Day bucks the system a third time. Again, though, it’s just in a little way. The movie would claim that the form of infotainment Symmonz embodies is tenuous, and will sooner or later be toppled when the public takes to demanding real information. Chevy Chase, though, might be a little too clownish, too much a famously pratfalling commodity, to quite carry off his role as the unassuming professional who brings the substance and information we all presumably crave. And ultimately, this is Snow Day‘s problem as a whole: for all of its gestures at rebelliousness, it never manages to transcend its own preoccupation with image.
Still, in considering how far Snow Day goes in eschewing charisma’s easy lie, I recall Benji scampering hither and yon, as charismatic and sexy as it’s possible for a pup to be. Benji sets wrongs to right using his intuitive ability to distinguish between the suburban status quo and what may constitute a threat to it. Unable to read, he still grasps the meaning of ransom notes; unschooled in the explosive force of gunpowder, he still knows a handgun’s destructive power. Chevy Chase might once have tried to associate a human consciousness with Benji’s aggressive cuteness (in 1980’s Oh, Heavenly Dog!), but all along Benji effortlessly epitomized image over substance. The dog who played the role never even knew they were making a movie about him.