A UK-Canadian co-production, Snow Cake is a poignantly funny movie about how the warmth of human companionship can thaw frozen emotions. Without resorting to melodrama or sentimentality, this low-budget, well-crafted film, boasting outstanding performances from Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver, is a refreshing change from the relentless in-your-face style of so much contemporary cinema.
Directed by Welshman Marc Evans and scripted by first-time screenwriter Angela Pell, Snow Cake is set in Ontario, where the icy weather conditions mirror the emotional states of the protagonists. The reserved and taciturn Alex Hughes (Rickman) is persuaded against his better judgement to give a lift to kooky 19-year-old hitchhiker Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), who is then killed in a collision with a truck through no fault of his own.
Nonetheless, driven by shock and guilt, Alex decides to call on Vivienne’s mother Linda in snowbound Wawa, her intended destination, to explain exactly what has happened. Linda (Weaver) turns out to be a high-functioning autistic, who seems to accept the news of her daughter’s death with extraordinary equanimity.
Alex stays to give her practical help, but then forms a relationship with her attractive, independent neighbour Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss). But before too long, Maggie’s ex-boyfriend, the jealous local law-enforcement officer Clyde (James Allodi), appears to discover a dark secret in Alex’s past which could explain the original reason for his journey.
Evans’ unobtrusive but highly effective direction allows the subtleties of the relationships in Pell’s story to develop naturally. The focus is very much on how Alex, by learning to fit in with Linda’s rigid routine where everything has to be done in a certain way and everything belongs in a certain place, is forced to look outside of himself and question his own control-freakery, slowly coming to terms with the trauma which haunts him.
Weaver (in a role she apparently researched for a year) is highly convincing as the eccentric Linda, producing a less showy performance than Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man. Inhabiting her own social bubble, she rarely makes eye contact with those around her, but shows a childlike talent for living in the present and retaining a sense of wonder at the world.
Carrie-Anne Moss also impresses as Maggie, the free-spirited and warm-hearted vamp somehow stuck in conventional Wawa, who, with the aid of some sexual healing, helps to bring Alex in from the cold.
But it’s Rickman who really stands out. His understated portrayal of Alex is a joy to watch, by turns touched and exasperated by Linda’s behaviour as he struggles to exorcise his own demons. His dry, ironic humour comes across as a self-defence mechanism while his world-weariness suggests a man who has come to a crossroads in his life.
A genuinely moving drama about how people learn to live with and without each other.