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Bleak Houses

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An exhausting bleakness pervades the work of David Gordon Green, the filmmaker behind a string of modest movies he's written and directed featuring lonely small-town landscapes populated by anxious lives.

So it seems natural that for an adaptation Green would pick a work like the popular coming-of-age novel by Stewart O'Nan, set in a town terminally snowed in. A less-earnest filmmaker might have inserted an unruly patch of vitality in such a landscape, some greenery or sunshine, but here the emotional and physical iciness are entirely reflected in each other. No one would accuse Green of being wishy-washy or subtle. Depression is his agenda, and in "Snow Angels" no amount of humor or irony is allowed to get in the way.

Chief among the depressed are Arthur (Michael Angarano) and Annie (Kate Beckinsale), who work together at a Chinese restaurant. Arthur and Annie flirt, but the movie is more interested in their spiritual connection. The two may be at different stages, but they share a bond of dissatisfaction. Annie is a single mother trying to raise her young daughter alone after breaking up with the child's father, her high-school sweetheart Glenn (Sam Rockwell), some time after their marriage fizzled. Arthur, well, he's just a high-school kid. The movie sort of asks us to accept his dissatisfaction as a given.

Scan the rest of the characters in vain for a happy camper. The one person who may pass for the upbeat success is Annie's boyfriend, Nate (Nicky Katt), but we soon learn his positive attitude is only a result of being shallow. Carefree means, among other things, that Nate will fool around with even the most distastefully available of the town's women.

"Snow Angels" is best with characters such as Nate and Glenn, unsympathetic hangers-on who survive by empty bravado or the shameful lack thereof. I would trade 100 scenes of Arthur and Annie moping around the house for one more of the born-again drinker Glenn, who shares the Gospel with the supervisor at his menial job and asks Jesus for guidance from the foot of the childhood bed he's had to return to. (On the other hand, the secondary characters aren't all winners: Amy Sedaris is terminally miscast as Annie's friend and Nate's wife.)

For some reason though, the movie offers the majority of its attention to people who are way too obvious. That Annie, beautiful and intelligent, would be, of all things, bored with slinging Kung Pao chicken and that Arthur, a pimply trombone player in the high-school band who sneaks an occasional can of beer in his bedroom, might walk around with a perpetual look of disaffected angst on his face, are not exactly revelations even if they spring from recognizable symptoms.

One begins to suspect that Arthur and Annie are the characters of choice because the film has an agenda. People like Glenn and Nate are the cause, not the result, that the movie is after. And so with the people in Arthur's and Annie's lives as signposts, we are slowly driven down a dark country road of destiny on a tour of a mood, foreboding and threatening at every bend. Can anyone be blamed for wanting to get out before the inevitable shocking conclusion arrives?

A quick look into Green's biography explains a lot. A big fan of filmmakers like Robert Altman and Terrence Malick, Green enlisted the latter to produce his most mainstream film to date, 2004's "Undertow." There is evidence in "Snow Angels" of the influence, but Green has missed something in his adulation. Perhaps mistaking effects as means in themselves, he goes after something called "sadness" the way Stephen King does fright, almost like a parlor trick.

Though there are plenty of doses of reality in this movie, after a while you begin to lose hope that any of these people will do, say or experience something unexpected, something that falls outside the strict tone of the movie. The one glimmer of hope, Arthur's love interest, Lila (Olivia Thirlby, the best friend in "Juno"), is quickly shooed away. Bright, precocious and, dare we say it, cheerful, Lila ends up smothered by Green in spectacles, dark hair and wool, and given a sore lack of screen time. The movie seems to want no part of her, and her character may go down in history as the first to be done in by props. (R) 106 min. S



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