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Double Rainbow: Snow Cake

Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman in Snow Cake

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.

Related:

New York Times review of "Snow Cake"

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)

Previously: A Quick Look at the Savant, Mattie Ross

 

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Comments

7 comments have been made. Post a comment.

...note

I'm not the touchy-feely type, but I was indeed moved by this movie. It even became one of my all time favourites.
I respect your opinion and I agree that there are some things that would need further explaining, especially how Linda got pregnant, but I must stress this: there are a great many forms of autism and this disability has not been fully explored. You are entitled of your own opinion regarding the acting itself, but speaking from my personal experience, I met autistic people who were around 40 and still behaving as if they were just about to hit puberty and I have also met autists around 40 who were mature and not childlike at all. So theres really no generalisation on how to play an autist right (and I am not saying you accused anybody of acting incorrectly).
The "correct" portrayal always comes up when movies like this come out.

But still, I enjoyed reading this review. It gave a lot of different aspects that have not occured to me (maybe because I was blinded by Alan Rickman and his voice, who knows). Anyway I just wanted to point that out, no offense.

"speaking from my personal

"speaking from my personal experience, I met autistic people who were around 40 and still behaving as if they were just about to hit puberty and I have also met autists around 40 who were mature and not childlike at all."

ouch! I really don't find it appropriate that you use "speaking from my experience" to excuse your hurtful statements about your IMPRESSIONS of what autists are like. I could say, "speaking from my experience, I've met people of color around 40 who still behaved like children and I have also met people of color around 40 who were mature," but that wouldn't make what I was saying alright. I don't think it's appropriate for you (as a presumably non-autistic person, since your experiences are only about MEETING autistic people) to make judgments about whether autistic people are more or less like children.

also, it's condescending to tell the autistic person writing this review that there are "many forms of autism" and that you, as a non-autistic person, are "stressing" this. yikes.

check yo privilege. it needs some radical questioning.

I actually appreciate the

I actually appreciate the initial comment because it makes a good point: I absolutely cannot speak to every autistic experience, and I need to check my privilege because my experience is radically different from that of someone who is non-speaking or who needs intensive daily support, for example. Yeah, non-autists shouldn't be dictating to autists about the nature of autistic experience. But it's true that as a "high-functioning" person--with the less stigmatizing (let's be honest) diagnosis of Asperger syndrome to boot--I need to tread carefully. I'm not about "Aspie supremacy."

My issue with the film (not so much with Weaver's performance because she can only work with what she's given) is that Linda is denied the depth and breadth of character that her age ought to have lent her because she is autistic. The amount of time someone has been around means something to that person's experience of and in the world.

Any adult can act "childish" or "childlike," regardless of dis/ability. Some autistic people may give the impression of being "like children," just as some autists are actually savants--the problem arises when qualities like that become stereotypes.

It was not my intention to

It was not my intention to sound overly supperior or anything. I'm not a native speaker and maybe my inability to make myself clear is what caused this missunderstanding. I did not intend to sound like meeting an autist ist like visiting a zoo or as if I would discriminate against them. It's also possible that I took a different meaning from this particular part of the review, but I just wanted to express that every person is different and I met (yes again, personal experience) people who would think every autist is like Rainman or making general asumptions about autists even saying they were a little autistic because they would be overly clean or organized and that's just not what this condition is about.
My cousin is autistic too, and we would spent a lot of time together as kids so a know a little about "dealing" with autism.

Again, I did not mean to offend you with my choice of words. They are limited and maybe our connotations differ.
All I wanted to say is that autism or being autistic advanced in a quite inflationary way and some people come to think of it as a helathy condition to keep ones life in order (and I'm not accusing the author of thinking this either, just to be on the safe side here). It's just something I observed.

Snow Cake

I can agree that this movie is a bit of a mess, but I'm autistic and I didn't find myself particularly offended by it. My life isn't much different than Linda's...or at least, my ideal life. I'll admit to being a bit inured to the way that nearly all American films use just about every and any token minority to enhance, teach, or augment white (and generally male) characters. Indeed, there's a bit of "magic autist" and a dash of "manic pixie dream girl" to Weaver's characterization of Linda, but I felt I was able to project some pretty intense grieving onto her.
Most of the parts without her were fairly boring though. Not even Alan Rickman could save the "plot". I just look at it as one of those "here is a bunch of crap that may have happened or not" type films.
I like rolling around and playing. I don't necessarily feel like that is inherently childish or child-like. The only things that change about us humans as we age is our rationalizations.

I like rolling around and

I like rolling around and playing, too. I tried hard to make the point that it's not particular behaviors that denote a "child-like" quality, but I had a hard time articulating what I felt was missing from Linda's character and how that lack made me feel like she wasn't really an adult. I just felt like something was missing--some trait, some scene, some relationship--that gave me a real sense that she is operating with 40+ years of life experience.

I'm probably coming down hard on the character because she's autistic, and because she's up against tropes like the ones you mention. There certainly is an overall cultural tendency to infantilize autistic adults.

I didn't like the film very

I didn't like the film very much, but I also didn't dislike it much. I'm too used to autistic people being mostly a prop for the main character I think. I realise what you mean with childlike: the character really doesn't seem like she has 40 years of life behind her. Maybe she did change with time, as people do, but there is no sense of it. It also felt again like they just collected a bunch of observed 'symptoms' and turned it into an autistic "person" again (as in 'The Curious Incident'), I'm actually surprised to hear it was mostly based on an existing person.

There were a few things that I liked though. The orgasm remark actually: it was something I really identified with (also, having had a baby doesn't necessarily make you any more knowledgeable about sex in general, and orgasms especially. It is very much possible to have sex without ever having an orgasm, after all). Maybe it's because I'm asexual. It was just very amusing for me to hear her say that.
Also, we have a not-highfunctioning character with a strong personality, and she lives on her own with assistance! It was kind of refreshing to see it presented as a perfectly reasonable way for someone to live.