Movie Review: Flakes out on autism

Snow Cake suffers from a grating performance by Sigourney Weaver as an autistic woman whose child has been killed in an accident.

snow cake 298.88 (photo credit: courtesy)
snow cake 298.88
(photo credit: courtesy)
There's a certain genre of movies I'll call misfits-bonding-together films. One character is usually disabled in some way, and a second has suffered a loss of some kind, often involving a child. Another hallmark of these movies is that they tend to take place in rural areas so the characters can take long, lonely walks together. Generally, they're set in winter, not far from a frozen lake. By the end, a secret has generally been revealed and all the characters have been redeemed - which in movie terms means that dour people give a half smile. Click for upcoming events calendar! The Station Agent, about a dwarf who takes a job running an isolated railway station after his best friend dies and befriends a woman whose child has died and a hot-dog vendor who can't shut up, is a classic of this genre. It's a far more effective film than Snow Cake, which also fits squarely into the misfits-bonding category but suffers from a grating performance by Sigourney Weaver as an autistic woman whose child has been killed in an accident. Let's put aside questions of accuracy for now (I'll get to those later), but her performance is an annoying collection of faux-childlike tics that has more in common with other wise-despite-their-disability performances such as Jodie Foster as a backwoods woman who has never learned any language in Nell than with the actual behavior of any human being. In the few scenes when Weaver, usually one of the most enjoyable actresses in movies, drops the whimsy and shows the fear and vulnerability at the center of her character's psyche, the movie comes to life. The plot gets going when Alex (Alan Rickman), a sad-sack stranger with a secret (he has served jail time for murder and has lost a child of his own), agrees to give a ride to Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), a kooky hitchhiker whose loud, hippie-ish clothes and annoyingly personal questions are meant to represent the life force. As they drive through snowy rural Ontario, she is suddenly killed when a truck driver plows into Alex's van. Alex, whose chilly exterior was beginning to melt in response to Vivienne's onslaught, goes to see her mother in the small town of Wawa (yes, it's a real place) to talk to her about her daughter's last hours. But when the autistic Linda (Sigourney Weaver) comes to the door, she seems completely untouched by the news about her daughter and is more interested in the trinkets Vivienne was bringing her. When Linda lets Alex step inside, she finally does show strong emotion - when his snow-soaked clothes drip onto the carpet she is obsessed with keeping pristine. Welcome to the world of Linda, who glibly tells Alex, "I don't do social." What she does do is count everything in her kitchen dozens of times a day, line up shoes and knickknacks, fill her mouth with snow, roll around in ecstasy and jump on a trampoline. Alex agrees to stay for the funeral (if he didn't, there wouldn't be a movie) and befriends her neighbor, the sultry Carrie-Anne Moss, best known for her role as Keanu Reeves's comrade-in-arms and love interest in the Matrix movies. She also has a secret, which she gradually reveals to Alex as they stroll around the nearest frozen lake and go to bed in her New Age-y furnished apartment. What this sophisticated, urban free spirit is doing in the wilds of Wawa is never explained, but if she weren't there, there'd be no sex or romance in the movie. Snow Cake picks up a little toward the end, when Linda's parents (David Fox and Jayne Eastwood, who give understated, touching performances) return from their vacation and mourn their granddaughter. The funeral scene and the reception afterward have more emotional resonance than anything that has come before. Accuracy is generally in short supply in movies, and highly inaccurate films are often the most enjoyable. But when a specific disability such as autism is shown on screen, the question of accuracy needs to be addressed. Screenwriter Angela Pell has an autistic son, and Sigourney Weaver also spent time with an autistic woman to prepare for her role. But in spite of their familiarity with autism, there are serious problems in Snow Cake's portrayal, and as the mother of one autistic child and the aunt of another, I feel I should point them out. Just as the autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man is not at all representative of most autistic people (only about 5% have savant abilities), neither is Linda, who is either a high-functioning autistic or suffers from the more mild Asperger's, meaning she is extremely verbal but has difficulty with emotion and social situations. The vast majority of autistic people are characterized as low-functioning, meaning they can't talk at all or can only say a handful of words. About 75% are considered mentally retarded. Interestingly, though, I've never seen a low-functioning autistic person portrayed on film. Why not? Because they wouldn't be able to spout all the dialogue Linda does, intended to give evidence of her charming naivete, such as the scene where she shoves snow into her mouth, asks Alex if he's ever had an orgasm, and tells him: "It sounds like an inferior version of how I feel when I have a mouth full of snow." This kind of glib verbiage doesn't sound like any autistic person I've ever met but like a Hollywood idea of how such a person might talk. While I was watching the movie, I thought it seemed to have been written by someone who had skimmed a Time magazine article about autism, with line after clunky line meant to illustrate some characteristic of the syndrome. It surprised me to learn that the screenwriter had first-hand experience with autism and that she had consulted experts in the field. But there are moments that do feel right. Toward the end, after Linda's parents are introduced and a little more background about her life has been revealed (including a fairly plausible explanation of how she became a mother, although her parents raised Vivienne), her behavior becomes a bit less showy and much sadder. The isolation and fear she experiences become clearer, and the movie ends on a touching note. As a misfits-bonding flick, Snow Cake isn't bad, but anyone with a genuine interest in autism will find it a frustrating experience.