Cinema Signal:

Soon Will Come the Light:
A View from Inside the Autism Puzzle

(in discounted Paperback from Amazon)

. "Snow Cake"

Turning what might have been an "illness of the week" tragedy into an affecting entry with entertainment elements to please arthouse patrons, director Marc Evans, working from Angela Pell's screenplay, pulls it off in a limited way but with emotional sensitivity and a solid cast.

Vivienne Freeman (Emily Hampshire), a young hitchhiker with more spirit than fear, enters a restaurant, scans it, and picks a man sitting alone to delight with her company. Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman), a laconic Englishman, barely tolerates the intrusion on his quiet privacy with a gabby youngster and, after displaying what is, for him, considerable patience, rejects her suggestion to ride with him. He leaves, alone, and drives off.

But, when he sees her thumbing for a ride out on the highway -- for inexplicable reasons -- he relents and offers her a ride. Delighted by the turn of events, she probes him until she understands he's not digging it. But, as she adapts to his reticence, she's having an effect on him. One can't help being subdued by an animated, endearing personality, not even this Englishman.

All the more painful that, just when he begins to enjoy her company, stopping for a little shopping at her request, a truck plows into them as they reenter the highway, rolling Alex's car over and killing her instantly.

From this moment, the story moves into the profound affect it has on him and his need to express his grief. For this, he obtains the girl's mother's address from non-cooperative police, and lands on Linda Freeman's (Sigourney Weaver) doorstep with Vivienne's possessions and a heart full of pain. But, from the mement she opens the door, something is beyond expectation. Linda acts and talks strangely, as though she's an alien from another planet with a behavior pattern that could be described as anti-social, emotionally indifferent, mulish and intransigent.

What we and Alex will soon learn is that Linda is autistic.

The creators of this piece went to great lengths to study the autistic adult and Weaver to emulate the non sequitur thinking and obssessive orderliness that characterizes the syndrome. Rickman, who by now has convinced us of an unusual capacity for empathy, brings out his character's sensitive understanding by adapting to the often taxing demands of his new friend.

Next door to Linda lives Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss), an unmarried woman Linda describes as a prostitute (for totally unsubstantiated reasons) and won't allow into her home let alone allow her to help her in any way despite Maggie's offers. Alex, enroute to deal with his own problems, can hardly stay to help Linda, but he negotiates an understanding with her to stay long enough to help her with the funeral. In the meanwhile, he's admired by the townspeople, finds romance and a free meal with Maggie, and is excoriated for having been in prison by the town cop Clyde (James Allodi) whose jealousy over Maggie's attentions have him riled.

Small town life mixes tragedy with humor and irony in the telling of the unique circumstances and will appeal to thoughtful audiences on a gut level. While Weaver captures the speech patterns of typical autism, it often sounds flat and learned by rote, but this may well be a proper characteristic of the autistic. Otherwise, through a mixed up thread of thoughts and actions, her portrayal will seem true to anyone who has had contact with those who suffer from the disorder. Much study and education about it is evident from all involved.

If acting were a contest, Rickman wins. He's superb in his less than effusive British way, always a singular presence, always more than dependable, as we've seen in far different contexts, such as his Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. Here, he makes such an impression as a reticent, funny humanist on the road that you may pine for a sequel about his further adventures when it's over.

Refreshing as well is Moss who adds some smoking sensuality to the mix. I don't think she's looked this good since "The Matrix." Sexy, assured, dynamic.

Hampshire, as the plucky hitchhiker, stands out with enough natural vitality to animate all the moments of a too-brief role. Weaver devotes herself to the portrayal in a self-effacing but not quite award-earning way. There was enough of that from a B-list actress when Charlize Theron took one for a similarly exhausting, hyper-characterizing award-me sacrifice in 2003's "Monster."

All else aside, the film is a worthy effort toward bringing a prevalent disorder to the filmgoer's attention, and that should not go unsaid. The understanding to be derived from this drama (and from Weaver's studied work) will serve well in an encounter with an autistic person.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman
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