Snow Angels
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Michael Angarano, Jeannetta Arnette, Nicky Katt, Amy Sedaris, and Olivia Thirlby. Directed by David Gordon Green.106 min. Rated R.
 
Paranoid Park
Starring: Gabe Nevins, Jake Miller, Taylor Momsen, and Dan Liu. Directed by Gus Van Sant. 85 min. Rated R.

Of the two films from Warner Independent Pictures opening this week, Snow Angels is the more upbeat, lighthearted offering — only because the other one is Michael Haneke’s psychologically traumatic Funny Games. In any other context, this new drama from David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls) would seem, well, downbeat and heavyhearted.

The first scene might actually make you think you are watching a comedy: The members of the world’s worst high school marching band, having just butchered Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” are being upbraided by their decidedly odd coach (Tom Noonan): “Do you feel it? Do you have a sledgehammer in your heart?” Some of the kids, including trombonist Arthur (Michael Angarano), try to suppress giggles, but suddenly all mirth disappears when they hear a gunshot in the distance.

We leap back four weeks: Arthur’s parents (Jeannetta Arnette, Griffin Dunne) are splitting up, which adds to his standard-issue teen angst. He would rather hang out at the restaurant where he works as a busboy. Among the waitresses there is Annie (Kate Beckinsale), on whom he has had a crush ever since she was his babysitter. Annie is a newly single mom, doing her best to look after Tara (Grace Hudson), her 4-year-old. Annie has thrown out her husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), who attempted suicide a few months earlier and is clearly still unstable.

Glenn has become so pathetic (and scary) it’s hard to imagine why Annie hooked up with him in the first place. (Annie’s explanatory line — “He used to make me laugh” — is one of the film’s few hackneyed moments.) He gamely takes on a low-rent job and finds solace in religion, but nothing less than rejoining his wife and daughter will satisfy him — and that’s not going to happen.

While all the adults seem incapable of successful romantic couplings — there is lots of cheating going on — Arthur gets his first real girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby). That’s the only sign of hope on screen, as the rest of the characters head inexorably toward the gunshot incident that began the film.

Snow Angels is a well-meaning, well-crafted drama. Its interweaving of adult and adolescent storylines is a bit reminiscent of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, but transpiring in a far less affluent milieu. The characters are nicely drawn, but at the end it is hard not to wonder just what the point was.

2Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park has some similar plot points, but is far more intriguing. Except for his few truly commercial efforts (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester), Van Sant has always had a taste for experimentation. Paranoid Park is related stylistically to Elephant and Last Days and (thank goodness) qualitatively closer to the former than the latter.
Alex (Gabe Nevins) is part of the skateboarding crowd at his Portland high school. When a railroad security guard is killed and the police find evidence linking it to a skateboard, Alex becomes convinced that Det. Lu (Dan Liu) considers him a suspect.

Early on, Alex’s voiceover narration apologizes for telling the story out of order, but he is trying to get it down on paper as well as he can. And so the film — always closely tied to his POV, proceeds out of order, sometimes backtracking and repeating earlier scenes that take on far different import in a new context.

Van Sant manages to draw us into his protagonist’s world much more intimately than Green, partly thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has created other hypnotically involving subjective worlds for, among others, Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love) and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe). Paranoid Park has much less plot activity going on than Snow Angels yet stays longer in your memory. Like Elephant, it is a triumph of style and mood over story.