The film stars Rickman (who, I'm starting to think, couldn't turn in a bad performance if he tried) as Alex Hughes, a sullen man with a mysterious past who meets Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), a young hitchhiker, at a truck stop diner, and surprises himself by agreeing to give her a ride to Wawa, Ontario, where she's heading to visit her mother. A tragic car crash kills Vivienne just as they're starting out, leaving the traumatized Alan to deliver the news of her daughter's death to her mother, Linda ( Weaver). As it turns out, Linda is autistic, and doesn't handle the news of Vivienne's death quite the way Alex expected, and he ends up being drawn inexorably into Linda's life. Carrie-Ann Moss has a nice turn as the sexy next door neighbor. I thought at the time the film was vastly underrated -- it wasn't the best film I saw in 2006, but neither does it deserve some of the panning it's received. It's certainly been divisive among the critics, sitting with a Rotten Tomatoes "fresh" rating of 64% overall, but with a dismal 38% among the "cream of the crop" elite. Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek took particular issue with the idea that Weaver, who has in the past played very strong women like Ripley in the Alien flicks, playing a character who's pretty much the anti-Ripley. She almost seemed to find Weaver taking the role of Linda patently offensive. If you read the various reviews of the film, they're pretty evenly divided into two camps: Those who found Weaver's performance as Linda amazing and insightful (these folks probably also loved Rain Man, As Good as It Gets and I am Sam) and those who either hated that she took the role at all or, like Zacharek, found her execution to be little more than an exercise in "acting" austistic, rather than a heart-felt creation of a character you could really care about.
Zacharek compares Weaver's role in Snow Cake to Julie Christie's in one of my favorite films from last year, Sarah Polley's Away from Her. I can almost see her point -- Christie's performance as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's is brilliant and subtle, and I fully expect to see her nominated for an Oscar for it. But it's a totally different role than Linda in Snow Cake, and the films have completely different tones that require different types of performances. As Christie's Fiona inexorably disconnects thread-by-thread from the life she's always known and the husband she's lived with for decades, we experience the pain of what's happening more from the perspective of her husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and how the loss of his wife's memory affects him. In Snow Cake, we experience things from Linda's point of view, while also feeling the strange sense of being cut off from the rest of the world that accompanies autism (the script, penned by Angela Pell, was based in part on her own experiences as the mother of an autistic son).
The whole point of an autistic character like Linda is that she's supposed to feel disconnected from the world -- and from the audience, to a degree -- and it's Rickman's character who draws us in and helps us find a way, as he does, to feel connected to her in spite of her odd sense of social skills and obsessive behavior. This could have played like a Lifetime movie of the week, but Rickman and Weaver help this little film rise above that to be something more. Snow Cake opens this weekend. If you're a fan of Rickman and Weaver, you'll want to catch this film; then come back here and let us know on which side of the critical divide you fall: is Weaver's performance as an autisitic woman maudlin or moving? And are you tired of seeing great actors "stretch" by taking on roles as disabled characters?