Last year's "The Ice Storm" proved that films don't necessarily have to be likeable or sticky sweet to be rewarding. And though this one is slightly warmer in tone, "The Sweet Hereafter" is just as brutal emotionally and nearly as thought-provoking.
It's definitely not an easy film to watch, though, since it's so unflinching in its portrayal of incest and, if possible, is even more unsettling in the way it exposes dirty little secrets without trying to make its characters sympathetic.
Actually, "The Sweet Hereafter" has some creepy parallels to Robert Browning's tale of "The Pied Piper," as a teenage girl tries to save the town's residents of a small rural community in British Columbia from a rather rodentlike charmer.
The character in question is Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), an attorney who is bedeviled with family problems. His daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks, daughter of author Russell Banks, whose novel forms the basis for the movie) ran away from home and is addicted to drugs.
Though he finds himself powerless to save Zoe, that personal crisis doesn't stop him from exploiting the residents, who are finally beginning to recover from emotional and physical scars suffered in a disastrous schoolbus crash.
Mitchell immediately seeks out the parents of children who were killed in the crash, promising that they will receive compensation if they let him represent them in a class-action lawsuit. He then begins to build his case around the testimony of two of the survivors — bus driver Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose) and teenager Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), an aspiring musician crippled in the accident.
But instead of discovering what really happened, Mitchell begins to encounter some resistance from widower Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), whose son and daughter were killed, as well as Nicole, who begins to assert herself and who becomes the voice of reason in the town.
Holm, an underused and underrated character actor, is the glue that holds the whole thing together. He's engrossing when he puts on his persuasive lawyer charm routine, and is almost heartbreaking when Mitchell tries to deal with his daughter by telephone, thousands of miles away.
And Polley (from TV's "Road to Avonlea") is very convincing as a character who actually gains strength when she is maimed, physically and emotionally.
Kudos also should go to writer/director Atom Egoyan, who tries to treat the material as intelligently and objectively as possible. He also does a superb job of shifting the story back and forth in time, without making it confusing or needlessly complex.
"The Sweet Hereafter" is rated R for profanity, simulated sex, violence, female nudity and some vulgar references.