Falling Angels directed by Scott Smith, written by Esta Spalding, based on the novel by Barbara Gowdy, produced by Robin Cass, with Callum Keith Rennie, Miranda Richardson, Katharine Isabelle, Kristin Adams and Monté Gagné. A Seville Pictures release. 101 minutes. Opens Friday (November 14). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 88. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Stop me if you've heard this one . There are three Canadian sisters, see. One's an attractive rebel, one's a frustrated homemaker with a troubled love life, and one's a closeted lesbian. They're looking after their alcoholic mother without any help from their abusive, incestuous father, and struggling to keep the lid on a tragic family secret from their collective past. Involving a baby. Oh, you have heard it? This year? And it was called Marion Bridge? No, no. Different story. That one was set in the Maritimes.
OK, Fallen Angels isn't really the same thing. It's set in the suburban Ontario of the 60s, for one thing, and for another it's cleverly adapted from a darkly witty Barbara Gowdy novel.
To be fair, where Marion Bridge was an understated character study, Fallen Angels is a teeming Petri dish of a movie, a culture of early boomer mores cooked down to its essential elements and stuck under a narrative microscope.
It dissects the generation gap between shattered second world war vets and their baffled offspring with ruthless, hyperkinetic humour underlined by deadpan, note-perfect period sets and costumes and a witty score.
Callum Keith Rennie is the toothy, crewcut father clinging with jittery desperation to a veneer of military discipline while his wife, a muted, tremulous Miranda Richardson, drinks herself catatonic in front of the TV. The three daughters, emotionally abandoned by their shell-shocked parents, stumble coltishly through a late-60s obstacle course of sex, drugs and weird religious convictions.
Norma, the eldest, played with subtle poise by Monté Gagné, communes with the spirit of a dead baby; Lou (Katharine Isabelle), the rebellious one, experiments with drugs and half-baked revolutionary politics; and Sandy (Kristin Adams), the youngest, dabbles in free love with a shoe salesman played with gleefully sleazy charm by Mark McKinney.
The characters are all a little cartoonish in their monomaniacal pursuit of the zeitgeist, but they're more than just emblematic stick figures, thanks largely to director Scott Smith's sense of tragicomic timing. When Mary, the mother, tries to reconstruct a tap routine she used to perform as a chorus girl entertaining the troops, Rennie's Jim eggs her on as the kids watch in sympathy and dismay. The moment after she sits back down on the couch is as long and agonizing as it would be in real life.
There are spots near the end where the film's logic crumbles. Gowdy's prose in the original novel is almost telegraphic in its density; she communicates the unfolding inner lives of three characters over 10 years in less than 200 pages. To bring the story to the screen in 100 minutes, the filmmakers cleverly telescope and conflate characters and events to save time and build tension.
But these little changes serve to shift the film's moral centre away from Gowdy's dry, bitterly comic existentialism and toward a more life-affirming embrace of family values. It's a superficially satisfying and fundamentally dishonest ending that raises more questions than it resolves.