I had never seen the 2006 film Snow Cake before I decided to write a post on it for this series. Based on the trailer and the synopsis, I didn’t have high hopes for it. I knew that Sigourney Weaver’s character, Linda, was going to be a plot device in what should have been her own story. I knew the film would focus on Alan Rickman’s character because it’s safer to go with a non-autistic protagonist. I did, however, trust Alan Rickman to give me something to enjoy.
Rickman, sadly, can’t rise above this dull, offensive mess of a film. As Alex, a Brit on a sort of pilgrimage through Canada, he’s his usual charming self, but he is wholly eclipsed by the movie’s sheer awfulness. Snow Cake employs the usual tropes associated with cognitive disability and autism, but it’s also just…bad. I gave quite a thorough run-down of everything I found wrong with the 2009 film Adam in a previous post, but with this movie I just don’t know where to start.
The film opens at a diner somewhere in Ontario. An aggressively “quirky” looking girl (who resembles Ramona from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) plunks down next to a morose-looking Alan Rickman and, after a bit of dialogue that establishes her character as spectacularly annoying, asks him for a ride to the town of Wawa. He eventually acquiesces, introducing himself as Alex Hughes. Her name is Vivienne. Shortly into their journey, just as they have begun to bond, a semi slams into the side of Alex’s car and Vivienne is instantly killed. Guilt-stricken, Alex insists on visiting Vivienne’s mother to explain what happened.
That is the set-up. What follows is difficult to, well, follow, and equally difficult to recount. The first act did nothing to draw me in. It is awkwardly established that, prior to arriving in Canada, Alex killed someone(!) and has just been released from prison. This lends his character a degree of mystery, but there nothing to really connect or endear him to the viewer. Vivienne is simply obnoxious. She’s the typical “manic pixie dream girl,” and her one-dimensional “quirkiness”—as terrible as this sounds—makes it difficult to appreciate her death as a tragedy. Even as Alex finds himself sobbing at Linda’s kitchen table and promising to stay with her until after Vivienne’s funeral, the film has done nothing to really make the viewer care.
The character of Linda Freeman, Vivienne’s autistic mother, is a travesty all her own. According to the triva section on the film’s IMDb page, Linda’s character is partly based on the screenwriter’s autistic son. While the son’s age is not indicated, that little fact reminded me of something I’d seen about another, totally different but equally botched autistic character: Doctor Virginia Dixon, a heart surgeon with Asperger syndrome who appeared briefly on Grey’s Anatomy. In a featurette interview, Mary McDonnell remarks that she based the character on a young male fan whom she met at a sci-fi convention. (This is mentioned around the 1:18 mark in the video. For anyone unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, McDonnell is well-known for her role as President Laura Roslin.) When I watched McDonnell’s performance as Doctor Dixon, I certainly saw that the character behaved more like an adolescent than like a middle-aged woman who is an accomplished heart surgeon. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief high enough to accept that Dixon had made it through medical school. I had a very similar impression while watching Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Linda. The character acts and seems like a child. Why would anyone think to base the character of an adult woman on an adolescent boy? There seems to be an underlying assumption that autism manifests consistently across age, sex, and gender. As if those factors don’t affect autistic people, and as if because of our condition we just remain static over time.
At least Linda is also partly based on Ros Blackburn, an autistic woman who offers lectures on autism throughout the UK. According to IMDb, Weaver borrowed some of Blackburn’s own traits, such as a fascination with trampolines and a fixation on shiny objects. When I say that Linda seems childlike, I am not referring to these traits. (Who isn’t fascinated by shiny things?) Nor do I mean her physical and vocal stimming; there’s nothing inherently “childish” about autistic behaviors like stimming or even meltdowns and outbursts, which is exactly what the filmmakers didn’t seem to get. Sigourney Weaver actually conveys autistic mannerisms pretty well and on that level her performance often feels quite natural. The problem is that the film never gives Linda any depth . The viewer is never given a sense of who she really is and how her life has made her that way. There is no indication of how she has developed as a person over the years. She just seems like an autistic child in a grown woman’s body. She even shows a “childlike” naïveté about sex even though she has a biological daughter. “Vivienne described an orgasm to me once,” she tells Alex. “It sounds like an inferior version of how I feel when I have snow in my mouth.” (Linda has a special interest in snow. I would remark on how this trait is never properly integrated into the plot, but there is no plot.) The film addresses the question of Vivienne’s conception via a brief conversation between Alex and Linda’s father. “We don’t really know how it happened,” her father tells Alex. “For all we know she could have been forced” he adds, unforgivably. Given the reality about disabled women’s likelihood of being sexually assaulted, that’s a hell of a bomb for the film to casually drop and then never actually address.
While Linda is phenomenally mishandled, none of the characters have any depth or development. The film is so difficult to retell because it has too many subplots, all of them are completely static, and none of the characters involved behave like actual human beings. Alex ends up staying with Linda because he feels so guilty and because, with Vivienne gone, she has no one else to “take care of her.” He begins a casual relationship with Linda’s unpleasant neighbor, Maggie, when she jumps into bed with him the very first time they meet—despite the fact that she knows he was was the driver during the fatal accident and that he is mysteriously (and inappropriately) staying with Linda. Later, Maggie cooly recounts to Alex how she has been married but constantly cheated, and she flatly declares that she is an “extremely selfish person.” In the same scene, she uses sex as leverage to get him to confess his own past, and he tells a convoluted story about how he is travelling to Winnipeg to meet a woman with whom he had a one-night stand decades ago. This woman had a son who eventually contacted Alex and arranged to meet him in England. On the night they were to meet, the son was killed by a drunk driver. In the few years since, Alex has been mourning the son he never really met, grieving for a “fantasy.” There is an awkwardly tacked-on subplot about the truck-driver who slammed into Alex’s car, and his attempts to contact Linda to apologize. Alex confronts him at Linda’s front door in one scene, and has a breakdown when the driver demands that Alex hit him. Later, at Vivienne’s funeral, the driver shows up again but this time Alex welcomes him and offers his hand as a gesture of forgiveness. Of course, it’s not Alex’s place to forgive the trucker because Vivienne wasn’t his daughter….
The single most offensive aspect of the film is that Linda is never allowed to grieve for her own daughter. The movie is ostensibly about facing down the tragedy of losing a child, but the focus is squarely on Alex’s grief over both Vivienne and his own son. Not once does the film offer any insight into Linda’s inner life and her grieving process. She is a plot device meant to help guide Alex through his own emotional turmoil. Once again, exposure to a disabled person results in some kind of nebulous “betterment” for the non-disabled protagonist and, by extension, for the presumably non-disabled audience.
Since none of the characters have arcs and the film overall has no climax, there isn’t really any “resolution.” It’s never established how exactly Alex and Linda bond, so Alex’s goodbye carries no emotional weight. It is revealed extremely late in the film that Alex had been in prison (that fact that he killed someone is awkwardly dealt with and easily forgotten throughout the movie) because he confronted and accidentally killed the driver who was responsible for his son’s death. Hence the odd little subplot between him and the truck driver. How exactly the events of the film helped him come to peace with his past is never illustrated. Maggie never changes over the course of the film, and the viewer is left wondering why her character was even in the movie to start with.
There are several deleted scenes that were released with the DVD, many which fill in some of the glaring gaps in the film. The scenes address nagging little details—like the reason why Linda at one point refers to Maggie as a “prostitute,” a proclamation that is not explained in the finished film—and even give depth to Linda’s character and her relationship with Alex. In the finished film, Linda declares at one point that she and Vivienne used to make “crazy creature snowmen” and that “every time I miss Vivienne, I’m going to build a crazy creature snowman.” Nothing comes of this line in the film as it was released, but there is a deleted scene in which Linda has built several “crazy” snowmen. In another (heartbreaking, when taken in context) scene, she desperately chases off some children who have cruelly smashed the snow creatures. This is a poignant illustration of Linda’s grief over the shattering loss of her daughter. Why did it get excised from the final film?
I’ll let you speculate as to the answer. The movie should have been about an autistic parent struggling to come to terms with the loss of her child. Instead, it is about an autistic parent inadvertently helping Alan Rickman come to terms with the loss of her child. If this muddled film has one message for its audience, it’s the troubling and wildly off-base assumption that autistic people can’t really experience grief at all.
Grief is the Thing That Sinks (a piece by blogger s.e. smith that addresses the nature of grief far more compellingly than this film could ever hope to)