Review Date: 10-22-08
Release Date: 11-21-1997
Runtime: 112 min.
Period: Contemporary, 1997
Costume Designer: Beth Pasternak
I have always wanted to see this film, but it has consistently slipped through my fingers in favor of more immediate viewing concerns. I don’t really know how I let this one get away. This film is brilliant, haunting, gripping and stomach churning. And guess what – the costumes are fantastic, and have escaped mention for far too long.
The plot is relatively simple: in a rural town in British Columbia, a school bus full of kids crashes into a frozen lake. The bus driver and a few kids survive. Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), a slick attorney from the big city arrives in the small town, trying to convince the parents of the deceased children that a class-action lawsuit (against whomever they can file it) is the right thing to do. Their case hinges upon the deposition of one of the surviving children, Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), now paralyzed from the waist-down, who, for her own reasons, lies under oath and destroys the case. The movie glides through flashbacks and real time effortlessly, so much so that sometimes the only way to tell the difference between pre- and post-accident is the presence of the lawyer. It is this gliding that makes the movie so dream-like, so fluid and so poignant. The movie feels like a memory itself.
This film is rich in its exploration of guilt, accountability, familial duty, parenthood, love, compassion, and the long-reaching effects of a single tragic event. There are various sub-plots along the way – everyone in the small town, including the lawyer, has secrets. Everyone has silent emotional burdens that threaten to break their spirit. This film explores the limits of guilt, compassion, and ultimately, the settling of a score.
The characters in this film have been created with heartbreaking sensitivity. This is a working-class, rural, poor community, and everything in the setting – costumes, sets, picture cars, locations, props, hair, makeup, lighting, everything – is realistic without being cartoonish. It takes a great degree of sensitivity and artistry to credibly represent a community like this; the entire production team should be commended. These characters are not cartoons, though they are strongly drawn. Some design choices (set decoration, props, hair, for example) seem extreme, if you look at them without context. But once the elements are put together contextually, they create a reality for the characters that is unmistakably authentic. These poor, rural, undereducated characters are given their dignity in this film, and it is refreshing and empowering to see it.
The movie starts with Attorney Stevens in his car at the car wash, talking on the phone with his daughter, Zoe. We intercut between Stevens trapped in his car, and Zoe, maybe high on drugs, calling to ask him for money. In this regard, Stevens knows all too well what it’s like to lose a child – in a bus accident or to drugs, loss is loss.
Stevens’ costumage is citified and meticulous. He wears refined, expensive-looking clothing: cashmere or merino wool sweaters, a tasteful wool overcoat, trousers, and a dark-hued muffler. During the depositions, he wears a suit and an overcoat. Later, toward the end of the film, when he is at the airport (and significant parts of his back-story have been revealed), he wears a sweater, jeans, a baseball hat, and sneakers – looking a tad disheveled, but still refined at his core. The frustration and anger he feels toward his daughter is offset by the control and refinement of his costumes. The strange thing is that Stevens still wears a wedding ring, though he admits (while wearing it) that he and his wife split up. I am still a bit mystified by this choice – any ideas?
Zoe, his daughter, is seen throughout the film in various outfits that describe her lifestyle – short skirts, punkish accessories, kinda skuzzy-looking. Everything looks aged-down and slept-in. The depths of her drug addiction are conveyed in this manner.
We then meet Sam (Tom McCamus) and Nicole Burnell – Nicole, 15 years old, is warming up for a performance at a county fair. She is in the middle of a sound check when her father (who doesn’t look quite old enough to be her father, in my opinion) ambles up to the stage wearing a tool belt, grinning. So we get it – tool belt, he’s working class (he’s helping to set up the performance stage). She wears a white and pink Fair Isle-style sweater, a bit oversized for her small frame. A school bus full of kids arrives at the fair, and we meet Dolores (Gabrielle Rose), the permed-hair/owl glasses/big jacket-wearing bus driver. Out of context, her character would seem to lampoon the small-town mentality. But in this context, sensitively handled by the actor, director and creative team, she becomes real.
This movie takes place in 1995-1997, and knowing that it’s a poor community, as a costume designer, you back-date the “look” of the clothing at least five to ten years. Nothing can look fashionable or new, or it will give a false feeling of prosperity to the movie. That said, the kids riding the bus were perfect in their late 1980s puffy down jackets, bad 1980s print shirts, pilled sweaters, knit hats, mittens. Everything looked like it had been thrifted, meaning purchased second-hand. There is great attention to detail paid to the background players in this movie. These background players, particularly the kids, become the scenery – they set the stage, they create the environment. To carefully costume each one of them is essential to creating a realistic atmosphere for the story.
One of the kids who dies in the bus accident is a young native Canadian boy named Bear. His adoptive parents, Wanda and Hartley Otto (Arsinee Khanjian and Earl Pastko, respectively) live in an A-frame lodge in the middle of nowhere. They are the only college-educated people in the small town, and they live an eccentric, artsy, hippified lifestyle, reflected in their dress. If I had to guess, I would say that their costumes are made from suedes, hand-knits, possibly home-grown and home-spun materials. It’s really brilliant stuff, an alternative-lifestyle couple, wearing hand-knits, with a strong hippie-artsy aesthetic. It really works, and the actors seem to inhabit their environment effortlessly. Again, out of context, this “extreme” look would be cartoonish, but within the context of this film and the environment of the story, treated with respect and compassion by the actors and others, it is absolutely real.
Billy Ansell, the town auto mechanic, is having an affair with Risa (Alberta Watson), who owns the town’s fleabag motel with her husband. Billy is a widower – his wife Lydia earlier died of cancer. Billy is now the single dad to twin children, and asks Nicole to watch them one night. She reads them the story of The Pied Piper (which eventually proves prescient), as they lay in bed. Billy gives Nicole some of his dead wife’s clothing as a gift – the clothing includes the Fair Isle sweater Nicole wears when we meet her character. It must be mentioned that the bedroom of these children is superbly decorated; in fact, the entire Ansell home is perfect. Billy Ansell is strongly drawn as well, from his raggedy walrus moustache to his greasy shop overalls, to his battered union baseball hat; the visual presentation of this character leaves little to be misunderstood. He is salt-of-the-earth, from hat to cowboy boots, and the costume, hair and makeup departments left no stone unturned in describing him visually.
On the way home from her babysitting gig, Nicole and her dad stop off at what looks like an abandoned barn. She exits the truck, wrapped in a thick red wool blanket. There, in the barn, the scene has been set (with a dozen burning candles) for a romantic interlude. While we never really see what happens inside the barn, with one non-fatherly kiss, we clearly understand that there is an illicit incestuous relationship happening between father and daughter.
In the scene in which the bus accident takes place, Billy Ansell is following the school bus in his truck, waving to his twins in the back seat. The kids in the bus are in a beautiful array of poppy colors, winter textures, hats, and mittens. Dolores, the bus driver, wears cheerful pink earmuffs. All seems well and happy. The bus rounds a corner, skids on the ice-covered road, and takes a nosedive into the frozen lake below. Billy exits his truck and stares, in shock, as the bus slowly plunges beneath the surface of the ice, like the wrecked Titanic. He stands there for just a moment, in his dirty work jacket and hat, steam rising from his mouth, frozen himself. It is gut wrenching.
Nicole returns home from the hospital in a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the waist-down in the accident. Her family, especially her father, has prepared a new bedroom for her on the ground floor, wheelchair accessible. She icily asks for a lock to be installed on her door, shooting a look at her father that indicates that the gig is up for him. Here, the family is dressed casually, but their poverty is at the front. Nicole’s dad wears a dark, beaten-up, cheap, puffy 1980s ski jacket. It seems like all he has. It is dismal. We meet her mother for the first time here, a plain woman with a bad, limp haircut, wearing desperately out-of-style clothing; she is about as interesting to look at as cold oatmeal. It is fabulously done.
Later, Billy Ansell comes over to the Burnell’s house to ask Nicole’s parents to drop the lawsuit. Nicole eavesdrops on the conversation, and realizes that there is potentially a lot of money involved in the case – money that would go to her family, and the other families involved. What is unclear is who will suffer for the lawsuit, who is really to blame, and who will be punished in court.
Nicole’s Dad drives her to the deposition, and here, her costume speaks volumes. Nicole is dressed like a four-year-old: tights over lifeless legs, lace-up shoes, a printed denim jumper-dress, turtleneck, and sweater. She sits at the table, looking forlorn, yet resolute, and she lies about the accident. Her father, sitting across the room, is devastated. There goes his money. Ultimately, Nicole has settled the score – not just about greed and the accident, but also about her abuse at his hands.
This movie so poignantly addresses sensitive subjects. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The filmmaking is brilliant, and the design elements – all of them – are functioning on their highest levels. This is one of the better films to see featuring contemporary costuming that, while influential, goes largely unnoticed. And, to be honest, maybe that is the point.