ICYMI: Oscar Edition - The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
For the first time in my adult life I will not be watching the Academy Awards telecast. In years past I have always found a reason to watch, based on the host, based on the nominees or simply based on nostalgia since the 2006 Oscars marked my 2nd date with my future wife. But this year, I am done. No host, no real chance of any of those that I deem worthy actually winning. And yes, the Oscars rarely go to the truly worthy, with the glorious exception of 2016’s Moonlight. With this in mind, I will take the next four weeks to highlight films that I believe were unjustly or just naively overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
1997 was a magnificent year for film. From the hard-boiled brutality of L.A Confidential to the epic pornographic landscape of Boogie Nights to the brilliant political satire of Wag the Dog to the insightfully tragic The Ice Storm to the underrated childhood poignancy of Eve’s Bayou (to be highlighted in the future). But the best film I saw in 1997 was The Sweet Hereafter. From writer-director Atom Egoyan comes a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of loss, grief, and the strength to move on. The Academy was savvy enough to recognize The Sweet Hereafter with 2 nominations (both for Egoyan as Best Director and for Best Adapted Screenplay) but it wasn’t enough.
Based on the novel by Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter tells the story of a small Canadian town living in the aftermath of a school bus accident that has taken the lives of 14 children. It may sound like a Lifetime movie starring Lindsey Wagner, but Egoyan paints an enormous canvass out of this wintery town struck by tragedy. But as we learn, it is only the most jarring in a town full of tragedies. The story is told in a non-linear style as we watch characters find ways to cope or just go through the motions.
Into this town enters Ian Holm (in one of his best performances) as a lawyer trying to put a class action suit together amongst the grieving parents. He is far from an “ambulance chaser” but still trying to capitalize on grief while dealing with his own in the form of his drug addicted daughter. During one phone conversation with her he softly states, “I don't know who I'm talking to right now.”
Holm’s character gets the lay of the land from the local motel owners Wendell and Risa Walker (Maury Chaykin and Alberta Watson). Two other important figures in this town are Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley) and Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood). Nicole is a teenager that survived the crash but is now confined to a wheelchair. She had dreams of being a singer, all under the protective and controlling eyes of her incestuous father, but is now numb both physically and emotionally. Billy Ansell is a single father who was following the bus, like he did every day to stay connected to his kids, and had an unwanted front row seat to the accident. Billy, we learn, was having an affair with Risa and in a very moving scene ends the affair when he realizes it was the anticipation of their meetings that drove him, not the actual sex.
But the heart of this film is Ian Holm’s performance. Both and Polley and Greenwood deliver award-worthy work but Ian Holm brings the viewer in with every nod, nuance and display of subtlety. The best, and probably most referenced, scene in the film is a story he tells to a friend of his daughter who happens to be his seat mate on a plane ride. Holm goes into great detail about the time that his new born daughter was bitten by a spider and began going into shock. Holm’s description of a parent’s worst nightmare plays like a nail-biting thriller in the midst of the film’s angst and heartache. By the time he reaches the “happy” conclusion of his daughter surviving he must wonder if her death would have been a better fate at that time than her current drug-addicted existence.
While The Sweet Hereafter was recognized by the Academy to a degree and by critics in huge numbers, the fact that the so-called Best Picture of 1997 was Titanic is personally disheartening. Atom Egoyan’s masterpiece of pain and acceptance deserves so much more relevance and notoriety. Throw in Paul Sarossy’s gorgeous cinematography and The Sweet Hereafter is a beautiful testament to the human capacity for forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness.