The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Directed by Atom Egoyan

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The Sweet Hereafter can be a gut wrenching film, as it should be considering the subject material.  It’s about the tormented people in a small town after a fatal accident involving a school bus full of children, and despite the obvious trauma of such a thing the film isn’t as manipulative as you might think.

We follow a rather melancholic lawyer into the little town, looking to represent the parents of the deceased in a class action lawsuit for which he may not have that much of a case.  His presence here, we’re led to believe, has as much to do with the pain of losing his own daughter to a crippling drug addiction as it does with the tragedy at hand.

The story is told in multiple different moments in time, sling shooting from past to future and back again as if, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, we’ve simply become unstuck in time.  It’s the same power that grief can have over you, dislodging you from any discernible rhythm and routine.  Like the lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) we can’t walk very far in the present without ruminating on the past and anticipating the future.

He recalls, in particular, a memory from when his daughter, aged three, nearly died.  She survived, but based on the focus on her current addiction (which has corrupted their own relationship and haunts him to this day), we wonder what exactly for.  It’s that same putrid curiosity that hangs over the death of around a dozen children when a school’s slid off the road and plunged through an icy lake.  Why?

And of course there are no answers.  It just happened, and it’s awful, and the film reckons with this by refusing to give us any answers, even simple narrative closure.

The premise, about a lawyer building up a class action lawsuit, sounds like it might be some rousing story about locating a certain corruption in the system and exposing it, kind of like what you see in 2019’s The Laundromat.  But Stevens is so quickly cut short, his plan never given much room to grow.

He succeeds in preying on certain grieving parents, appealing to their understandable fury over what happened, but he always seems convinced deep down that his plan won’t work.  He is a lethargic, even if determined, fellow who is shackled to his own melancholy and grief.  In flashforwards, presumably after all this lawyer-ing is finished, he remains a ghostly figure, and thus we have a good idea that his immediate work is headed nowhere fast.

His quest, then, is a bandaid for a deeper sense of loss.  He wants agency, just as the parents want agency and answers.  Someone must be responsible, something must be possible in response, but the film lets the air out of all of this by the end.  You simply have to carry on, with no guiding principle, conclusions or promises.

The solace, I suppose, is found in the attempt to keep on going, even if you don’t yet know in what direction you’re traveling.

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