At its center, and much like David Gordon Green's other movies, Snow Angels is about faith.
It's easy to block out the things that upset us. That's what I do. It's important to feel through this. I can't tell you how important.
-- Louise (Jeanetta Arnette)
Lying in a cheap motel room bed with her lover, Annie (Kate Beckinsale) tries to make conversation. When she asks Nate (Nicky Katt) how his wife is doing, he first scolds her, and then, when she worries ("Why do I overanalyze?"), he comes up with a Hallmarky sentiment to quiet her: "Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present." Annie smiles wanly, and leans her head back on his tattooed arm.
Annie is in need of consolation, however meager. Early in Snow Angels, it's clear that she's struggling to make sense of life as a single mom to four-year-old Tara (Grace Marchand). Between waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant and looking in on her ailing mother, she's also trying to forgive her estranged husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), a man increasingly as helpless and immature as their daughter. A recent attempted suicide, Glenn wants to return to a past moment: "I'm not as much of a screw-up as you think I am," he insists, reminding Annie of the way he used to make her laugh with a funny dance. During an afternoon with Tara, Glenn instructs, "You tell your mom daddy's not drinking beer anymore." The child nods.
As earnest as Glenn may be, his desperation is unnerving. While Tara can spend long, delighted minutes appreciating his funny faces and bad jokes (a brief scene at a food joint shows the child gazing at Rockwell, entirely fascinated), adults are less patient (exasperated, Annie tells her mother, "I have to live my own life instead of worrying that poor fragile Glenn is going to try to kill himself again"). The one exception is Rafe (Daniel Lillford), his boss down at the carpet warehouse and fellow religious fundamentalist. "You can be lost," he tells Glenn, "but you can be found."
Glenn needs to believe this, in the most concrete sense. At its center, and much like David Gordon Green's other movies, from the brilliant George Washington to Undertow, Snow Angels is about faith. More precisely, it's about doubt and desire, the underpinnings of faith. While Glenn's search takes a particularly and perversely institutional shape, Annie is also looking -- for a sense of identity without her high school sweetheart, a way to believe in herself despite what she sees as failures (her mother's repeated suggestion that she should be back with Glenn, a "good father," is unhelpful). As much as Annie knows Nate is untrustworthy and selfish, she wants to believe his lust for her, the high school beauty, means something more.
Faith also shapes two related storylines. Both are filtered through Annie's erstwhile babysitting charge, Arthur (Michael Angarano), now a shy high schooler who plays trombone in the marching band (he also narrates Stewart O'Nan's source novel). Like Annie and Glenn's story, Arthur's is closely observed, sometimes impressionistic, set against the snowy small town where they all live, where it's easy to feel lost (though beautiful in a stark, harrowing way, shot by Green's longtime cinematographer, Tim Orr). Arthur's parents are splitting, his father Don (Griffin Dunne) moving out and his mother Louise (superb Jeannetta Arnette) feeling angry and abandoned.
Lurching through this mess at home, Arthur finds Lila (Olivia Thirlby). A new student who wears cat-eye glasses and takes photos with a twin-lens reflex camera, Lila appears instantly enchanting. At once old-fashioned and utterly refreshing, she sees in Arthur the charming, smart, and sexual being he wants so much to find in himself (he buses tables at the Chinese restaurant, and flirts with his old crush Annie until she reminds him that she used to bathe him as a child: "No more bedtime stories?" he whimpers.)
Though Arthur blames his mother initially, he soon discovers that Don has abused her faith. And in defending Louise, Arthur finds in himself a sort of moral ground that he hadn't articulated before, a sense of outrage for her as well as recrimination toward Don. Lila, believing in him even when he doesn't quite, is the ideal he once childishly imagined in Annie, only Lila is actual: gentle, generous, and careful with him, sharing her photos of the many places she's lived and her impressions of him, without projecting her needs onto him. When, awkwardly standing by his locker, he gives her a pencil, desperate to give her something, she calls to thank him: "I really like the pencil that you gave me," she says, her voice light and soothing. "It's a wonderful gift."
Even as Lila encourages Arthur to trust in himself and believe in her, even as she seems the most "real girl," Annie comes to doubt everything about herself. A tragedy sends her spinning, most terribly into an acceptance of Glenn's worst, most blindly and fiercely pious judgment. Their impossible to fill needs become raw and urgent, Annie still trying to make sense of a life she's now seeing was always out of reach. "You have to realize people don't stay the same," she suggests, guessing that Glenn hates her for changing.
But Glenn, self-hating and unspeakably sad, has become lost beyond finding. And here Snow Angels loops back to its very first scene, a band practice in the snow, boots crunching on white, Lila in knit hat and bright scarf, watching. The bandleader (the perfectly cast Tom Noonan) barks his disappointment, "We're all a part of a formation. Every person matters," he asserts. Asking his motley group to "attempt to explore the physical musical possibility of making something substantial," he turns at last to a metaphor of faith. He feels a sledgehammer in his chest, he says, in his pursuit of perfection. "Are you ready to be my sledgehammer?" The kids blink and wait, not sure what to answer. It's a crazy, unfathomable question. It's about faith.