Snow Cake is one of those films which has worthy intentions and the word 'meaningful' engraved in every frame. Anglea Peil wrote the screenplay first and foremost to give a true-to-life depiction of autism (her son is autistic) and generate understanding and acceptance of the condition.
The problem is that the story which develops to explore these issues is too pat, too contrived, to be convincing, so the film ultimately fails to engage true sympathy for the characters.
To give the briefest summary of the plot: a man – Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) - with a mysterious and guilty secret is driving across Canada to Winnipeg (why didn't he fly? Someone actually asks this in the film, and he replies it didn't look so far on the map!). He is also English and therefore a fish out of water. At a truckstop café he curtly refuses a lift to a kooky girl hitch hiker (oh, come on, Alan, you know you're going to do it anyway) then relents (told you). At a later stop the girl (Emily Hampshire) buys toys with flashing lights for her mother. This interests Alex but before he can learn more a 40-ton truck smashes into his car. He is almost unharmed but the girl is killed.
Overwhelmed with guilt Alex rescues the bag of toys and delivers them to Linda Freeman (Sigourney Weaver). Linda turns out to be autistic, obsessively clean and tidy and disconnected from normal human interaction. She does not understand Alex's need to meet her and deliver the toys, and shows no grief – her daughter was here, now she isn't, it's that simple.
Linda convinces Alex to stay with her until the funeral can be arranged (as nobody is allowed in her kitchen, heaven knows how Alex goes to the bathroom), then he can put out the garbage as he leaves on Tuesday (“I don't do garbage,” she tells him).
As the film goes on we see more of Linda's autistic behaviour (eating snow, playing on a trampoline, playing made-up-words Scrabble) and Alex starts an affair with a next-door neighbour who seems to exist only in order for him to find peace and closure. (This small Canadian town must be short on men, because every woman he meets looks ready to eat Rickman alive.) Meanwhile the local cop looks up his past and seems to be stalking him just in case 'it' happens again.
What keeps the film engaging is our interest in learning Alex's back-story and a desire to know how these relationships will be resolved. When it comes, however, the resolution is as contrived as the main story: Alex accidentally killed the drunk driver who killed the illegitimate son he had never met, as his son was on the way to what would have been their first meeting. To have both children's lives taken by traffic accidents is just too much. The affair with the neighbour has run its course, and Alex continues on to Winnipeg.
The performances in the film are all good, sincere, and understated. Rickman conveys Alex's depression and guilt very well, and his scene with the truck driver who caused his accident has real tension. Some have said Sigourney Weaver is over-the-top and irritating as Linda but, having known autistic people, I feel she gives a very true portrayal of a condition that is still hard to come to terms with. It's a true portrayal not just mentally (she dances at her daughter's funeral wake to cope with the anxiety of having a house full of people), but physically (the arm movements and lack of eye contact).
Of course, the burning question we're all asking is: how did this woman get pregnant in the first place? This is almost thrown away as a little innocent canoodling with 'a boy at the Center' that went too far. Linda was 'six months gone' before anyone realised. Obviously nobody (parents or carers) was interested in how she was coping with her menstrual cycle.
Snow Cake is not a film for action fans, but those who want an engaging, thoughtful, 'intellectual' cinema experience. It is interesting to watch for the performances and story, but has a nasty morning-after effect when you start to count the contrivances and holes in the plot, and some lapses of characterisation.
British director of downbeat films: low budget House of America was followed by the controversial Resurrection Man. My Little Eye was an inventive variation on the slasher genre and Trauma an exercise in psychological horror. After these was Snow Cake, a sensitive drama concerning autism.