What You Need To Know:
THE SWEET HEREAFTER expertly tells the story of the aftermath of a school bus tragedy in a small Canadian town in which all the parents in the town except two lose their school-age children. Talented British actor Ian Holm plays an attorney who tries to get the parents to join a class action lawsuit. Bruce Greenwood plays a morally flawed father who wants nothing to do with the lawsuit. Sarah Polley turns in a fine performance as the teenager of another father who has been committing incest with his daughter.
This complex art film, written and directed by Egyptian native Atom Egoyan, may be slow and confusing for those people not used to movies that jump back and forth in time. Egoyan presents a relentlessly melancholy vision of family tragedy, sexual sin and loss in THE SWEET HEREAFTER. He appears to validate several important moral principles in his movie. Egoyan strongly suggests, for example, that sexual sin has bad emotional consequences. Regrettably, he offers no solutions regarding how to truly cope with family tragedy, sexual sin and loss. In fact, none of the characters in the movie are shown attending a church, praying to God or opening a Bible, despite the religious overtones of the title and subject matter
(Pa, B, L, V, NN, SS, A, T, D, M) Pagan worldview with some moral principles supported such as not trying to capitalize financially on a tragedy & sexual sin has bad emotional consequences; 5 obscenities; one violent school bus wreck but no depiction of dead bodies; partial female nudity including female in underwear; implied incest, depicted adultery & an incestuous kiss; alcohol use; tobacco use; references to off-screen drug use; and, miscellaneous immorality such as lying & gossiping.
THE SWEET HEREAFTER is a skillfully executed movie that presents a relentlessly melancholy vision of family tragedy, sexual sin and loss. Although it appears to validate several important moral principles, it offers no spiritual, moral or theological solutions about how to truly cope with or move beyond such tragedy, sin and loss. Thus, its high quality as one of the best-made films of the year will leave many moral people, especially Christians and other ethical monotheists, dissatisfied if not depressed.
This complex art film, written and directed by Egyptian native Atom Egoyan, may be slow and confusing for those people not used to movies that jump back and forth in time. The main plot of the story focuses on attorney Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) who visits the grieving parents in a small Canadian town where a school bus accident has killed all but one of the school-age children in the town. Mitchell also talks with the bus driver, played by Gabrielle Rose, who considers the dead children as her own kids. Billy Ansel (Bruce Greenwood) refuses to join Mitchell’s lawsuit, however, despite his two children’s deaths. At one point, he tries to encourage the parents of the surviving teenage girl, Nicole (Sarah Polley), to quit the suit, but they refuse.
Early in the film, the viewers learn three important facts about Mitchell, Billy and Nicole. First, Mitchell has an estranged daughter, Zoe (Catharine Banks), who has had a drug problem. Zoe keeps calling her father on his cell phone throughout the movie, but he turns a cold ear to her calls because he thinks she just wants money for drugs or for her latest cure. Second, Billy, whose wife died of cancer, is having a secret, adulterous affair with Risa Walker, the married owner of the local motel. Finally, before the accident, Nicole’s father, Sam (Tom McCamus), was fornicating with his daughter. Nicole ends up in a wheelchair due to the accident and her injury squashes her prospects as a budding rock singer.
Pain, grief, loss, and regret are the primary emotions that this melancholy film conjures up for its audience, especially when Mitchell talks with the parents, the bus driver and his own daughter. These emotions are heightened throughout the film because Egoyan keeps returning to the night before the accident where Nicole reads the story of the Pied Piper to Billy’s two children for whom she’s baby-sitting. In that fairy tale, the townspeople of Hamlin lose their children to the Pied Piper, who shuts them up in a mountain because the parents won’t pay him his fee for getting rid of all the town’s mice. In the version Nicole reads, only the lame child remains with his parents because he was too slow to catch up with the other children. The lame child’s physical ailment mirrors the emotional handicap Nicole suffers because of her father’s sinful treatment of her. Thus, Nicole is also lame and cannot follow the other children into “the sweet hereafter.” Through voice-over narration at the end, she comments, “We’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its own special rules. A town living in the sweet hereafter.”
Writer/director/producer Atom Egoyan fully accomplishes his goal of depicting the pain, grief, loss, and regret that parents can experience after literally or figuratively losing their children. He also brilliantly depicts the pain, grief, loss, and regret that a child like Nicole can experience after losing their innocence at the hands of a parent. His movie argues persuasively that you can’t put a price tag on such feelings, but the references to an afterlife in the use of the term “sweet hereafter” do not depict a recognizable Christian heaven.
Like other art-house filmmakers, Egoyan needs to learn that artistic subtlety cannot be achieved through art-house obscurity. It is almost as if he’s afraid to deal openly with the deeper spiritual, moral and theological issues of his subject. After all, none of the characters in his movie are shown attending a church, praying to God or opening a Bible.