By Daniel Walber | Spout April 23, 2011 at 5:52AM
It takes a village to mourn a child. That’s a sort of thesis for “Angels Crest,” which takes a panoramic view of how a town reacts to the sudden death of a three-year-old boy. The entire community is brought into focus, its ensemble cast gathering around the bereaved father and his sorrow while simultaneously grappling with his negligence in the matter. Adapted from the novel by Leslie Schwartz, the film feels very much like a work of literature with its wide scope and thematic breadth. Yet this seems to be both a strength and a weakness, and its rich shared emotions occasionally give way to awkwardly under-developed characters and rushed editing between component storylines. It’s a difficult balancing act for director Gaby Dellal and scriptwriter Catherine Trieschmann.
It centers on Ethan (Thomas Dekker), the young father whose lack of foresight on a cold winter’s day inadvertently causes the death of his son Nate in the film’s opening minutes. As he grieves, we gain insights into the lives of the local lesbian couple who once took him in (Elizabeth McGovern and Kate Walsh), the owner of the local diner (Mira Sorvino), and the infant’s alcoholic mother (Lynn Collins). These women, who each have a unique relationship with parenting, come together as a community to both aid and criticize Ethan to varying degrees. Things get even more complex when Ethan is put on trial for reckless endangerment as the public prosecutor (Jeremy Piven) arrives in town as an unwelcome stranger. There’s a lot going on.
At its high points “Angels Crest” is an intricate and poetic meditation on grief, guilt and parenthood, sustained through the balance between Ethan as tragic father figure and the predominantly female ensemble cast that surrounds him. Moreover there are thematic trends intricately woven about as the town copes with disaster, which require some effective character development and high quality acting. Dekker is wonderful, coming into his own before our eyes with a performance that is not simply a teary representation of grief. There is perhaps nothing in this film more painful than watching Ethan check and recheck the ways his son could have wandered off into the blizzard, and his stunningly genuine portrayal of crippling self-doubt puts the stamp on Dekker’s rising-star status.
Yet the team of actresses is the real strength of the film. The treatment of motherhood and its many incarnations draws from the veracity of these performances, from Sorvino’s cautious and practical single mom to McGovern’s self-consciously warm soul with an ex-husband and a visiting estranged homophobic son. They all move to and fro amongst Ethan and each other, shifting between affectionate attempts to ease his grief and blunt judgment of his failure as a parent. They waffle from supportive camaraderie as townsfolk to awkward moments of restraint and distance while confronting their own troubling emotional responses to Nate’s death. First-rate acting is what makes this all possible.
Unfortunately, the woven web of grief in “Angels Crest” only holds up so far. You get the impression around the halfway point that this really must be better as a novel, where there's more space to fully explore the motivations and personalities of the community. While none of these characters are reduced to the level of cliché in the adaptation, you can’t help but feel something is missing here. Piven is in a particularly rough spot, playing a part that presumably has a great deal of back story in the book that just didn’t make it into either the screenplay or the finished film. On the screen his prior experience with the loss of a child seems out of place and unnecessary, the reductive translation having ruined what could easily have been a compelling character, otherwise.
All of this raises the perennial question: how faithfully can one adapt a novel without getting lost in the shuffle? “Angels Crest,” despite all its best efforts, ends up somewhere in the middle of this discussion. It has moments of success but is ultimately just another film that stumbles trying to juggle too many narrative elements in just 90-odd minutes.