The Sweet Hereafter
Director: Atom Egoyan. Cast: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Gabrielle Rose, Tom McCamus, Alberta Watson, Caerthan Banks, Maury Chaykin, Arsinée Khanjian. Screenplay: Atom Egoyan (from the novel by Russell Banks).

Plenty of films are hard to watch, but rarely are they so because of the sheer power of their dramatics and the ferocity of their emotional conflicts. The Sweet Hereafter's jagged, complicated narrative structure is nothing new in the work of writer-director Atom Egoyan, but the visceral impact that he and his impeccable cast achieve here is rare within almost any filmmaker's career. In a small, wintry Canadian town, a schoolbus carrying most of the local children runs off a mountain road and sinks beneath the ice. One child, played by the incomparable Sarah Polley, survives (albeit in a wheelchair) as a witness to what happened, and it's both heart-wrenching and a little disquieting to see how the town's adults hover around her, waiting for her testimony of what it felt like to be on that bus, secretly wishing that their own sons or daughters had usurped her place as the sole survivor. The larger story arc, however, concerns these aggrieved parents more directly, as they are processing—or not processing—their loss, and how a lawyer (Ian Holm) with his own concealed tragedies arrives in town to stir up a profitable whirlwind of blame and resentment. Egoyan's evocation of total human despair is compelling enough, but he complicates matters significantly by introducing real moral arguments, and then he raises the bar of his ambitions still further, daring to find in his bleak narrative (taken from Russell Banks' novel) a parable of morality and of the possibilities of resilience. Certain things get better for these characters, and for the audience, as The Sweet Hereafter unfolds, and certain things get worse, or look worse. It's a bracing and balanced vision of what trauma erases from human experience and what it can't erase, and how for better or worse, there is always more to a story. A

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Director: Atom Egoyan
Best Adapted Screenplay: Atom Egoyan

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize (Runner-up for Best Picture); FIPRESCI Prize; Prize of the Ecumenical Jury
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Film
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Polley)
National Board of Review: Best Ensemble Cast
Genie Awards (Canadian Oscars): Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor (Holm); Best Cinematography (Paul Sarossy); Best Original Score (Mychael Danna); Best Sound; Best Sound Effects Editing

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