Simon Birch and The Sweet Hereafter (review)

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Lost Childhoods

[Major Simon Birch spoilers!]

A schoolbus full of children plunges into icy waters and sinks. That one event is central to two very different movies. Simon Birch builds to the bus crash, making it the culmination of a mystical plan of God. The Sweet Hereafter examines the aftermath of tragedy, how one town learns to cope with grief and the desire to assign blame.

An instrument of God
Simon Birch is the reason Joe Wenteworth believes in God. So the grownup Joe — played as an adult and in voiceover by a wonderfully restrained Jim Carrey — tells us as he stands over Simon’s grave. And we flash back to the story of Joe’s revelation.

Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith), a dwarf, is the smallest person 12-year-old Joe (Joseph Mazzello, who’s on his way to being a major talent) ever knew. Rejected and ignored by his parents, Simon idolizes Joe’s mom Rebecca (Ashley Judd), who showers him with all the love and affection she offers her own son. That she’s also young and beautiful doesn’t hurt — Simon is as sex-crazed as any other 12-year-old boy and thinks Rebecca has the nicest breasts of any mother in town.
Simon suffers exactly what you’d expect in a sleepy, small New England town of the early 1960s. Not only is he physically different, he’s too smart for his own good. He’s not afraid to confront Rev. Russell (David Strathairn) with questions about faith the minister can’t answer (when the reverend invites the congregation for refreshments after a service, Simon stands up and demands to know what donuts and coffee have to do with God), and he’s constantly riling the cold and nasty Sunday-school teacher Miss Leavey (Jan Hooks).

His run-ins with the religious set are a particular source of bitterness for Simon because he’s convinced he is an instrument of God. He’s going to be a hero someday, and not too far off, he believes. And sure enough, Simon and Joe are chaperoning the bunch of third-graders on that schoolbus when it begins to sink. The panicking little kids listen to Simon because his size doesn’t threaten them, and all are rescued safely thanks to Simon — he’s even able to drag the last one out to shore when the bus finally submerges because he can fit through the bus windows.

But listen to all the bizarre things that God has set up in order for Simon to be a hero: Joe has to be born a bastard, and Rebecca must never tell who his father is, so that when Simon kills Rebecca accidentally with a baseball, the secret father (who of course is local) can spirit away the killer baseball as a kind of weird souvenir. And when Joe and Simon get into trouble with the law as they try to discover who took the baseball — and hence who Joe’s father is — their community-service punishment is to chaperone the little kids. But when Simon gets himself into more trouble and is relieved of the chaperoning duty, he accidentally discovers who has the baseball, and because he then runs to tell Joe the news, Simon is there on the bus when the driver swerves to miss a deer in the road, loses control, and plunges the bus into a rushing river.


And did I mention? Simon loses his life as a result of his bravery.

Now it seems to me that if God could arrange to have Simon born a dwarf, at just the right place and time, and could arrange to have him on that bus even when he wasn’t supposed to be there, God could much more easily and with much less pain to all involved have arranged to have that deer wait one more minute to cross the road. If Simon’s fate inspired me to believe in God, I’d also be inspired about a second later to hate him.

But that’s just me. Simon Birch is a delightful film, with wonderful performances, some good laughs, and some good cries.

Without rhyme or reason
One cold winter morning in rural Sam Dent, British Columbia, Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood, one of my very favorite actors), following in his pickup, as he did every day, the schoolbus carrying his young twins, waves to his kids through frosted windows. A moment later, he watches in horror as the schoolbus hits a patch of ice, slips from the road, rolls down an embankment, breaks the surface of a frozen lake, and sinks beneath the ice.

When The Sweet Hereafter opens, the bus crash has already occurred. Lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) arrives in Sam Dent to gather plaintiffs for a lawsuit against the school board, the bus manufacturer, whoever will pay for the deaths of so many children. As he interviews grieving parents, the bus driver, and one of the children who survived, we see through their memories what the town was like before the tragedy.

Bereaved as Sam Dent is now, it wasn’t such a happy place before. Widower Billy was having an affair with Risa Walker, owner of the local motel — her husband (Maury Chaykin) is, at the very least, verbally abusive to her and disdainful of most of his neighbors. Teenager Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), a talented singer, dreamed being a rock star while dealing with the inappropriate advances of her father Sam (Tom McCamus). Dolores (Gabrielle Rose), the bus driver, calls her passengers “my kids” but dismisses perhaps the most loving parents in the town, Wanda and Harley Otto (Arsinée Khanjian and Earl Pastko) as “hippies.”

Stephens pushes hard, manipulating grief-stricken parents into joining his lawsuit, forcing them into a desire to assign blame to whoever it will stick to. Stephens’ passion becomes more understandable as we learn more about his relationship with his drug-addicted daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks) — he has no one to blame for her problems, he believes, but himself.

Billy is Stephens’ lone holdout. Not only was he the only witness to the accident — he knows Dolores did nothing wrong, wasn’t speeding or driving recklessly — he’s also the town’s mechanic. He maintained the bus, and he knows there was nothing wrong with it mechanically. The accident was an accident. No one is to blame.

And poor Nicole. She survived the crash but will never walk again. She overhears an argument between Billy and her father — Billy wants the whole town to pull out of the ridiculous lawsuit, and her father’s refusal makes it clear to Nicole that he’s more interested in money than her welfare. Ironically, by placing the blame on one pair of shoulders she makes certain that no one will profit.

Where Simon Birch seems to take some kind of comfort in the concept of a manipulative God, The Sweet Hereafter offers no reassurances of any kind. Accidents become tragedies because we make them so, not only by our reactions to personal loss but by how we choose to go on living.

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Simon Birch
viewed at a public multiplex screening

The Sweet Hereafter
viewed at home on a small screen

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