Glimpses of heaven

Snow Cake seeks to cap­ture the com­plex­ity of autism, writes Stephen Ap­ple­baum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

WHAT is it that at­tracts ac­tors to play­ing char­ac­ters with autism? Dustin Hoff­man’s por­trayal of an autis­tic sa­vant in Rain Man re­mains the best known ex­am­ple. But since then we have had Sean Penn in I am Sam, Juli­ette Lewis in The Other Sis­ter, Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eat­ing Gil­bert Grape? and now Sigour­ney Weaver in Snow Cake.

Weaver is a re­spected ac­tor; the di­rec­tor of Snow Cake, how­ever, was an un­usual choice for this sen­si­tive sub­ject: Welsh­man Marc Evans had made only hor­ror films and psy­cho­log­i­cal thrillers be­fore.

‘‘ I’ve es­caped from hor­ror jail,’’ he laughs. He liked what he was do­ing, but he was pi­geon­holed, par­tic­u­larly in the US. ‘‘ So I had two or three years of re­ally bad genre scripts. Whereas good hor­ror scripts are re­ally in­ter­est­ing, bad hor­ror scripts are about as bad as it gets.’’

Film­maker Michael Win­ter­bot­tom and pro­ducer Andrew Ea­ton saw po­ten­tial, though, and sent Evans ( he still doesn’t know why) the script for Snow Cake, by first- time screen­writer An­gela Pell.

‘‘ As soon as I said I wanted to do it, they didn’t ques­tion that,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t know whether that made fi­nanc­ing it more dif­fi­cult, but they never kind of let me feel that.’’

There were prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing pre­pro­duc­tion, when they were ‘‘ haem­or­rhag­ing money’’. At one point, Evans re­veals, cast mem­ber Alan Rick­man was help­ing with the cash flow: ‘‘ It doesn’t get much bet­ter than that in terms of com­mit­ment, does it?’’

Set in a snowy town in north­ern Canada called Wawa, the film stars Weaver as Linda, an autis­tic sin­gle mother whose ob­ses­sively reg­i­mented life is dis­turbed when a stranger ( Rick­man) comes knock­ing at her door.

He was driv­ing the car in which her daugh­ter was killed when it was hit by a snow plough, and is now racked with guilt. ‘‘ This film is about how her view on life af­fects his view on life, and how he is some­how healed through a com­bi­na­tion of this mad lit­tle town and this autis­tic wo­man,’’ Evans ex­plains. It sounds like a recipe for sweet­ness but Snow Cake never trades in sen­ti­men­tal­ity. A vein of sar­donic hu­mour runs through Pell’s screen­play, in­formed by her own ex­pe­ri­ence with an autis­tic son.

Be­fore film­ing be­gan, she sent Evans a memo. ‘‘ It said, ‘ Note to the di­rec­tor: liv­ing with autism can be hell but it gives you glimpses of heaven,’ ’’ he re­mem­bers. ‘‘ I thought, here’s some­one speak­ing from ex­pe­ri­ence and she re­ally does be­lieve there’s some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary about the way her son sees the world.’’

Weaver’s sharply ob­served per­for­mance cap­tures the com­plex­ity of the con­di­tion. She is by turns stub­born, fear­ful, in­sight­ful, po­etic, cold and child­like. The ac­tor spent a year re­search­ing autism and briefly lived with a wo­man who, says Evans, ‘‘ was Linda, more or less’’. He is thank­ful for Weaver’s com­mit­ment. ‘‘ What I re­ally didn’t want to be was a sort of autism mon­i­tor, telling her, OK, be more, or less, autis­tic. I’m not an author­ity on it.’’

Ac­cept­ing Weaver as Linda takes ef­fort. It is fine when an un­known plays some­one with a men­tal or phys­i­cal dis­or­der, as Daniel Day- Lewis did in My Left Foot, but Hol­ly­wood ac­tors carry more bag­gage. Cyn­ics may say it’s the kind of role ac­tors do with one eye on the Os­cars.

Weaver says she was drawn to the project be­cause she ‘‘ thought it had such a won­der­ful bal­ance of com­edy and ro­mance, and I think some real truth about a rather rare sub­ject, which is autism’’.

Weaver dis­cov­ered that she had things in com­mon with Linda. De­spite her years in show busi­ness, she says she’s shy and feels un­com­fort­able in the pub­lic gaze. ‘‘ When peo­ple approach me, I’m very bad at that,’’ she ad­mits. ‘‘ So the one thing I can ab­so­lutely re­late to is the self- con­scious­ness of the autis­tic per­son who doesn’t want to be looked at.

‘‘ I think a lot of ac­tors are not par­tic­u­larly out­go­ing in gen­eral sit­u­a­tions, and the fact that peo­ple are star­ing at you, when you want to study them, is a weird part of this busi­ness. So I did to­tally re­late to that.’’

One of the most in­trigu­ing as­pects of Linda is her ap­par­ent in­abil­ity to con­nect with the loss of her daugh­ter. She can­not grieve like other peo­ple around her; it’s as if she has not com­pre­hended the full weight of what has hap­pened.

Tears ap­pear in Weaver’s eyes and her voice cracks as she talks about a scene in which Linda imag­ines say­ing good­bye to the girl who had looked af­ter her as they dance to­gether in the snow. ‘‘ I was kind of scep­ti­cal about that be­cause it sounded a lit­tle touchy- feely to me,’’ she ad­mits. ‘‘ But when I watched it for the first time, I was so glad, be­cause it made so much sense that Linda would some­how cre­ate a way for her­self to very pri­vately say good­bye to Vi­vian. That was the most mov­ing mo­ment to me.’’

Ac­cord­ing to the find­ings of a three- year study com­mis­sioned by the Aus­tralian Ad­vi­sory Board on Autism, one in 160 Aus­tralian chil­dren aged be­tween six and 12 has an autism spec­trum dis­or­der, which means that as many as 125,000 peo­ple may have some form of it. The con­di­tion is still mis­un­der­stood.

Snow Cake has been praised for its ac­cu­racy in de­pict­ing autism. It is cer­tainly a far cry from Rain Man, which, by high­light­ing the sa­vant as­pects of Hoff­man’s char­ac­ter, helped to fix cer­tain cliches about autism in peo­ple’s minds.

The point is briefly raised in Snow Cake, al­though Rain Man is no longer men­tioned by name in the movie. ‘‘ For a long time it was,’’ says Evans. ‘‘ An­gela was do­ing it for the right rea­sons, but we all felt there was a lit­tle bit of hubris in that. You don’t want to have a joke at the ex­pense of an­other film, be­cause you don’t know how your own film is go­ing to turn out.’’

Against the odds, Snow Cake turned out very well.

Snow Cake opens on Thurs­day.

Sar­donic rather than sen­ti­men­tal: Snow Cake stars Alan Rick­man, who helped with the cash flow, and Sigour­ney Weaver, who re­searched her per­for­mance well

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