Ranked #2 on the Possible Worlds Top 100 Canadian Films countdown, and winner of the FIPRESCI Prize, the Grand Prize of the Jury, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, The Sweet Hereafter is a moving story about a small Canadian town and the effects of an unimaginable tragedy. Check my thoughts out after the jump.
Based on the novel of the same name by Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter shows life in a small town in British Columbia, Canada in the wake of a horrific accident. A school bus crashes on its morning school run, and almost all of the town’s children are killed. In the wake of the tragedy, lawyer Michael Stephens (Ian Holmes) comes to the town and attempts to convince the families to bring a lawsuit which claims the accident was due to a fault with the bus. As well as the lawsuit, Michael has his own tragedy to deal with – his drug-addict daughter is spiraling out of control, and he fears the next phone call might be the one which informs him of her death. The film is primarily from Michael’s point of view, as he attempts to piece together a lawsuit, and deals with his own issues.
The townspeople are torn over the potential lawsuit, with some families wanting someone to pay for the tragedy, and others too distraught to think about it. The success of the lawsuit primarily hinges on the testimony of the sole surviving child, 15-year old Nicole (played wonderfully by Sarah Polley), who is being pressured into testifying by the lawyer and her father (with whom she has a disturbing and destructive relationship), who claims they need the money to help with her ongoing medical costs.
The film flicks between the day before and the day of the crash, Michael’s arrival soon after and the aftermath of the crash, and also the flight he is on when leaving the area. Through the skillful editing and of use of these three time spaces, we are given a detailed insight into the town, Michael, and how they deal with the tragedy. We are introduced to the children and their everyday lives at home and at school, which serves to make the impact of the crash more profound when we actually see it (even though we know early on that it’s going to happen). Before the crash we see that life isn’t perfect for some of the town’s people – affairs, abuse, and other dark things are taking place. These are real people with real problems, and although they react differently to the tragedy, they share the fact that everything has changed and their lives will never be the same again.
This film is a tough watch – the death of so many children in one accident is not a pleasant topic, and through the film (primarily Michael’s interviews with the families and Nicole) we experience the grief and pain felt by the town. The variety of personalities in the town offers viewers different perspectives on grief and how people cope – there is not a cookie-cutter response to this sort of tragedy, and the film doesn’t offer one. Some characters will break your heart, while others will frustrate you beyond belief. While I found the film laid on the drama and emotional guilt a little thick at times, it is for the most part a restrained and believable study of grief.
The film is as much a character study about Michael as it is an exploration of grief and tragedy. His motivation to come to the town is clearly money, and yet you get the impression that he might be trying to help these families to sooth his own guilt about the upbringing of his daughter. He clearly loves her, and yet through his conversations with his daughter’s ex-schoolmate on his flight home we learn that he has employed a “tough love” policy with her. I found it hard to sympathise or relate to Michael, and although he is clearly in pain about his daughter, I was never sure of his true motivations.
The Sweet Hereafter is a complex film but it’s one that I found rewarding overall. Haunting images, an atmospheric and chilling score, and solid performances ensures that this moving film will stay with you for some time after viewing.
Director: Atom Egoyan
Writer(s): Atom Egoyan (screenplay), Russell Banks (novel)
Starring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Caerthan Banks
Runtime: 112 minutes