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Snow Angels movie image Kate Beckinsale and Sam RockwellThis is the feel bad movie of the year.

Based on Stewart O’Nan’s 1994 novel of the same name, it is the tragic story of loss of innocence in a small town. It’s the kind of movie that can be difficult, but rewarding to sit through.

Structured like a film noir Snow Angels begins in the present before jumping backwards in time to show us the events that lead up to the two mysterious gunshots that kick off the movie. We meet Annie Marchand (Kate Beckinsale), a single mom and waitress in a Chinese restaurant. She is recently separated from her high school sweetheart, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian who has trouble holding down a job, but is desperately trying to change his ways to earn back the right to spend time with their four-year-old daughter Tara (Grace Hudson).

Working with Annie at the restaurant is busboy Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano), a shy boy dealing with his parent’s recent separation. His life changes for the better when he meets Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a charmingly offbeat girl who brings him out of his shell.

Inevitably these storylines mesh in heartbreaking ways, brought together by Annie’s affair with Nate Petite (Nicky Katt), the husband of her hard-edged co-worker Barb (Amy Sedaris).

Director David Gordon Green does a fine job of balancing the stories, skillfully weaving Arthur’s coming-of-age story throughout the considerably more morose story of Annie’s sordid life, but make no mistake there are few bright spots here. The story is almost unrelentingly tragic but Green and his cast keep things compelling by creating believable, convincing characters.

At the top of the heap is Sam Rockwell’s take on the troubled Glenn. One of the best and most underrated actors working today, Rockwell brings a tangible sense of despair to his character. He presents Glenn as someone who recognizes his shortcomings, but is almost incapable of straightening up, no matter how hard he tries. He’s by times charming and funny, by times dangerous and unhinged, but never less than interesting.

Kate Beckinsale also impresses. Best known for her leather clad vampire “Death Dealer” character from the silly Underworld movies, she proves there is more to her than the tight sweaters and the high wire action of her best known franchise. Her Annie is a quietly desperate character, a woman whose life has become frayed at the edges and the struggle to maintain normalcy for herself and her daughter is wearing her down. Beckinsale does a nice job at identifying Annie’s world weariness while putting on a brave face to those around her.

The misfortune in Snow Angels breathes the same air as the family heartbreak of The Sweet Hereafter in that they are both riveting slice-of-life dramas that examine the effects of tragedy on life in small communities. It isn’t easy viewing but its taut and uncompromising look at the dark side of relationships turned sour and great performances make Snow Angels worth a look.

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