Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) is an ambulance-chasing lawyer who smells gold when he drives into the small town of Sam Dent, British Columbia. The townsfolk there have suffered a great tragedy, losing nearly all their children in a wintery schoolbus accident.
Mitchell is no stranger to parental tragedy. His daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks), is a dying drug addict, and he is powerless to help her. This only drives him further in pursuing the citizens of Sam Dent. For, in the town's tragedy, at least there's someone to blame...there has to be. And Mitchell is prepared to file a suit which might define some meaning to a meaningless event.
The townspeople of Sam Dent are dealing with the tragedy in varied ways. Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), the schoolbus driver, is in a state of shock, having loved all the kids, yet being at the wheel during the accident. Billy Asnell (Bruce Greenwood), who was overly protective of his two children, spills out his grief in an adulterous affair. Sam and Mary Burnell (Tom McCamus and Brooke Johnson), whose child Nicole (Sarah Polley) was in the schoolbus, are some of Mitchell's most ardent supporters.
Atom Egoyan again weaves this story in a nonlinear web, in the same style as Exotica, but with much more success. This time, rather than leaving the film a tangled mess, the seamless flashbacks and flash forwards add a slightly hypnotic effect to the film.
The downside to Egoyan's method is that it takes a while for the film's layers to build up and have the intended effect. It's not until after about a half hour that the film actually draws you in.
The film's screenplay is both subtle and lyrical, a quality which is enhanced by beautiful parallels to Robert Browning's poem, The Pied Piper of Hamlin. Its most stirring moment is easily a story that Mitchell tells about Zoe, which nicely underscores his current relationship with her.
The acting in the film ranges from wonderful to mediocre. Ian Holm and Sarah Polley are the obvious standouts here. Holm has the meatiest role as a surprisingly sympathetic lawyer whose personal grief gets tangled with that of the town. Polley plays her role with quiet grace, and is the only one of the town's children that we truly get to know. Bruce Greenwood has a pivotal role, but he plays it with such blandness that his scenes are intrusive and uninteresting.
Although The Sweet Hereafter's style takes a bit getting used to, don't give up. As the patterns start to show themselves, there's a wonderful movie that's waiting to be revealed.
[R - sexuality and some language] (Fine Line)