By John H. Foote
Atom Egoyan’s profoundly austere, astounding and ethereal film stunned audiences at the Cannes and Toronto International Film Festivals in 1997, earning prizes going into the fall movie season, drawing attention to its artistry. I first saw the film at TIFF, and was shocked into silence and tears, it hit me very hard. Years later I had the chance to relate to Atom just why it hit me that hard. It had a startling impact on my life in the fall of 1997. A hushed but profound power
The morning of the 11 a.m. screening I had stayed home to put my daughter Aurora on the bus to kindergarten, her very first day. She was up at four that morning, an unstoppable bundle of energy so excited to go on the bus like a big girl and get to school. Hungry to learn, she was a delight, five going on 30. My wife and I walked her to the bus stop, and watched her get on the bus, find her seat and press her tiny nose against the window waving goodbye as the bus pulled away. How small she looked. Sherri wept as we walked back to the house, our baby was growing up. I hopped in my car and headed for TIFF, to my first screening of the day, The Sweet Hereafter. Partway through the film a father is following a school bus, waving to his children who are at the back of the bus waving madly, pressed against the windows. Suddenly the father’s wave becomes a jangling spasm of fingers in the air and then we see what he is seeing. The bus driver has lost control and is struggling to keep the loaded bus on the road. It crashes through the guard rail, skids out onto a lake and sits for a long sickening moment until we hear the cracking of the ice and it slowly plunges through into the water, the screaming of the children ringing in our ears.
Oh Jesus, my daughter got on a school bus that morning. When I came out of the film, I immediately called home to make sure she was safe at home with her mom. She was.
The Sweet Hereafter deals with the staggering loss of children from a small community, all but one lost in the accident, and she, Nicole (Sarah Polley) is left paralyzed from the waist down. The town is disrupted when lawyer Mitchell Stevens, portrayed with chilly calculation by Ian Holm, comes to town hoping to gather the families together for a class action lawsuit, promising them money. “Let me direct your anger” he tells them. Some of the families sign on, some do not. We learn of course Stevens has his own issues with his own grown child, a hopeless drug addict who calls for money. He is a challenging character to like, knowing he retains a third of any monies rewarded for the accident, but becomes humanized for us when he tells a story about his child when she had been bitten by a poisonous spider.
In the broken narrative, superbly edited, we gain an understanding of each of the families in the small British Columbia community, blanketed in snow, their children, their issues and who they are and were in the community leading to the accident. Billy (Bruce Greenwood), owns a garage, a young widower trying to raise two beautiful children on his own, carrying on an affair with a hotel owner, Risa (Alberta Watson), she, stuck in a bad marriage with a judgmental husband portrayed by Maury Chaykin with a nasty penchant for gossip. Nicole (Polley) is a beautiful teenager doted on by her father as she tries to break into music as a singer. We watch quite horrified as it is slowly revealed she is involved in an incestuous affair with her father Sam (Tom McCamus) that will prove to be damaging to them both. It must be said Polley does an extraordinary job singing the Tragically Hip song “Courage” slowing it down, her lovely voice filled with depth and emotion.
In a paralyzing few minutes onscreen Arsinee Khanjian becomes the poster girl for grief as Wanda, a mother who loses her adopted son, and is overwhelmed by the loss, barely able to speak. Equally brilliant is Gabrielle Rose as Delores, the jolly bus driver, reduced to tears over what has happened to her beloved “kids”. She joyfully describes gathering the kids in her bus like plump little berries, before depositing them at school. On the wall behind her, when Stevens interviews her are many photos of the children from her bus through the years, “my kids” she sobs, cherished memories for this devastated woman.
Billy fights the suit, tries to get the others to drop it saying if they need money he will give the money he got for his dead children to them. As a widower, he has dealt with unbearable grief before and is perhaps better able to handle it all than the rest. He is quietly horrified by what Sam says about money and overheard by Nicole, the young girl listens weeping as her father describes what the suit could give them. In the end it is Nicole, in a startling act of both betrayal and courage, who makes it right with a lie, looking directly at her father as she speaks it. The scene is a paralyzing moment as we watch a young girl lash back at her father for so many things, ruining her innocence, using her as a pawn to get money, forgetting that she is his child, someone he needs to take care of, not use.
Egoyan draws an interesting metaphorical storyline with that tale “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, Nicole representing the single lame child who was left behind while the other children were swallowed up by the cave of wonders. Left alive, Nicole will not experience the sweet hereafter as the other kids will, and with the loss of her legs, she knows she has lost more than can yet fathom. She looks at her father differently after the crash, without the deep love she had once shown him, not with contention, a quiet rage and realization that he took something from her very precious.
The performances in the film are stellar. Holm is excellent as the lawyer, himself dealing with terrible issues with his own child, a drug addict who has not been diagnosed with AIDS. Among the themes in the film are family, specifically the child’s role in family, and he gives s searing monologue explaining an incident when his child was stung by a spider and her throat was closing. There is a beautiful shot with that child staring up at him as they race to the hospital, her eyes accusing, searching, with the knife to cut into her trachea held in his hand, right beside her face.
Sarah Polley is exquisite as Nicole, just a performance of such purity and beauty is it nearly pointless to try and describe it other than to say see it, do not miss her work. Best known as a brilliant director and Academy Award nominated writer these days, it is a reminder of her talents as an actress. She is surrounded by Bruce Greenwood as Billy, a superb piece of acting, Gabrielle Rose, haunting, Khanjian, emotionally devastating in just two scenes, the entire cast is spectacular. There is just not a false note in the film, Egoyan directs with stunning precision and constant originality.
There are shots just before the bus accident that swoop high into the heavens as though God and his angels are watching, waiting to take the children to them. It is said it is unimaginable to lose a child, which I believe, and that life is never the same after. How could it be? You have lost that which is most precious to you, a part of you, all their dreams and hopes gone in an instant.
Mitchell Stevens never realizes money could not ever replace that.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.