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The Sweet Hereafter

Year: 1997
Production Co: Alliance Communications Company
Director: Atom Egoyan
Writer: Atom Egoyan/Russell Banks
Cast: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood

If it wasn't for the quite overt references in the story to the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, I never would have made the connection.

The premise seems to be a very high quality midday movie, but it may be that writer/director Atom Egoyan only dresses it up that way, instead wanting to make a dark, realistic fairy tale based on the Pied piper story.

The inciting incident we don't see until a good way into the movie is a bus crash that kills dozens of kids in a small Canadian town, but from the opening scenes you can feel the palpable sense of loss, unease and sadness even before you know what's gone on.

But it's about much more than that. 15 year old Nicole (Sarah Polley looking more fresh faced than you've ever seen her and still as powerful a performer as ever, has a very dark secret with her father, but it's not portrayed anything like you think it will be. Billy (Bruce Greenwood) is having an affair with the (married) lady that owns the local motel. These and all the other behind-closed-door secrets play out as they always have, but with the added sting that everyone involved has lost their children or knows someone who has.

It's all observed through the eyes of lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), who's come to town to try and convince the parents and driver to form a class action and sue. Keeping with the theme of kids, Mitchell has his own troubles with his grown daughter – a lost soul who only ever calls him pretending she wants to talk but when she's really run out of money for drugs or tattoos.

I found the story and the pace made the whole thing a befuddling mess. I kept expecting the thread of Mitchell's daughter to be somehow connected to the story going on in the town, but it seems all it served was to flesh out his character. It was a strange thing to do firstly because almost half the movie is dedicated to it – one recurring scene in the chronology that jumps back and forth several years deals with him talking to a young woman on a plane about having lost his daughter (while on another mercy mission to rescue her).

Secondly if the story was about him or his daughter, I'd understand all the time we spend with him – although as a bloodsucking lawyer who seems to come to town smelling huge amounts of money, he's not a very nice character to spend so much time with anyway.

But it seems the story is more about the accident, aftermath and townspeople, so I still can't figure out why he's so prominent rather than just a proxy audience.

Maybe it's just that the whole thing is about missing children and the various ways we can lose them, where a modern update of the Pied Piper who steals them can be attributed to anything from a bad bus crash to drugs.

However, I could have lived with that theme if either story has a bit more pace and a bit more point. Though Egoyan has many arthouse fans because of his aesthetic, I found it slow moving, dour and suffocating.

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