Read the back of the box, and you find the plot intriguing. It is set in a small community in British Columbia that is writhing in the aftermath of a bus accident, which killed a good portion of the town’s children. A big city lawyer wants to bring a class-action lawsuit against anyone (the town, the bus company, whoever has the deepest pockets) under the premise that he is helping these people direct their anger. And a young teenage girl, paralyzed by the accident, seems to be the only one thinking clearly.
And so you run a mini-movie through your head, playing out what you expect to see. We want the accident to be over right away, since that is less than entertaining. Perhaps the film opens with a bus full of happy, singing children, on their way to school. The camera will pan skyward, and we hear some skidding and screaming. And we can move on.
The big shot, bad guy lawyer arrives in town and starts convincing people that he is what they need. That someone is responsible, someone didn’t do their job, and that person is going to pay dearly. People start fighting, the town is being torn apart. Then in the middle of one culminating outburst, at which the whole town is present, of course, a small paralyzed girl wheels her way through the people to the front where she gives a heart-warming speech about how the town used to be family to each other, and that the only way to get through this tragedy is to work together. Then the lawyer apologizes and the girl’s dad hugs her, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Sounds inspiring, so you rent the film. And your mini-movie rapidly dissolves into a fading memory of simplicity.
“The Sweet Hereafter” is based on a 1991 novel by Russell Banks, which in turn was loosely based on a German legend called “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning. Woven through the scenes are narrations of the original poem, in a Victorian style that is still convoluted even after college English classes.
The film is not fast-paced, agitating to those of us who thrive on espresso and deadlines. It does not play out chronologically, irritating for those of us whose clock hands move to the right. The bus accident isn’t shown until midway through, leaving you wondering for the first half. And there is something just not right about the relationship between the teenage girl and her dad.
The film is packed with less-than-elegant reality: the tasteless fashion of a rural community, the goofy personalities of the uneducated townsfolk, the conniving lawyer taking advantage of people’s confusion and anger. Mix in some extramarital affairs, incest and the continuously interrupting phone calls from the lawyer’s drug addicted daughter, and the feeling you are left with is far from fuzzy. But then, if you wanted fuzzy, you should have rented “The Parent Trap.”
So then, why bother?
Well, first of all, “The Sweet Hereafter” won three awards at the 1997 Cannes International Film Festival. A good indication that, at the very least, there is some worthy cinematography and decent acting. In-depth symbolism is hidden in the way the camera moves across landscapes and depicts light. Exceptional performances are given by Ian Holm (“The Fifth Element” and “The Lord of the Rings”) as the lawyer, and Sarah Polley (“Road to Avonlea” and “Exotica”) as the teenage girl.
In the end, “The Sweet Hereafter” teaches us something about real human circumstances. It speaks about real human reactions. It leads us to conclusions that leave us unsatisfied. It helps us see that there is no such thing as the simple truth. Kind of like real life.