January 8, 2012 -- This tragic story about the accidental death of a child raises a lot of issues about parenting, responsibility, guilt, blame, compassion (or lack of it) and remorse. These issues have broader ramifications to society as a whole, far beyond this specific example.
A young parent, Ethan (Thomas Dekker of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” 2010) takes his young son Nate to the mountains to play in the snow the morning after Nate's birthday. When they arrive in the mountains, Nate is asleep in the pickup. Ethan doesn't want to wake him, so he locks him in the pickup with the heater and motor running and walks off into the cold when he sees some deer and elk. He comes back a few minutes later to find Nate gone. After a frantic search, Ethan finds his son dead in the snow from exposure.
A district attorney, Jack, Jeremy Piven of “RocknRolla” prosecutes Ethan for his negligence. Jack's own child died, and he has a deep emotional attachment to this case, as does Ethan's ex-wife, Cindy (Lynn Collins of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) who blames Ethan for the death of her son. In her alcohol-fueled rage she even aims her car at Ethan, who stands his ground. Ethan pleads not guilty, convinced there is some kind of defect in the child seat that Nate was strapped into. He cannot figure out how Nate was able to get out of the car seat without help. He would have had to unlock the shoulder and waist straps to get out, and he had never seen Nate do this by himself.
Ethan reads consumer complaints about the car seat and runs his own tests on it, but can't figure out how the seat failed to keep his son in the pickup. He also investigates why his best friend, Rusty (Joseph Morgan of “Immortals”) did not respond faster to his call for help in searching for Nate. It turns out he was in bed with Ethan's ex-wife, Cindy, when Ethan called. Rusty doesn't want to admit this at first, because he was cheating on another mutual friend, Angie (Mira Sorvino of “Reservation Road”). It turns out there is more than enough guilt to go around. Ethan, Cindy, Rusty and Angie all feel various levels of responsibility for what happened to Nate. Angie feels responsible because she never spoke up when she saw that Ethan was not behaving responsibly with his son. Cindy feels responsible because she would have been raising Nate herself if she could control her drinking problem.
Despite all these shared failures, a lot of people find it easier just to heap all the blame on Ethan. In the small town of Angels Crest in the rugged mountains of the north (the movie was filmed in Canada) the community is split in two. Some sympathize with Ethan, others do not. Some have compassion for him, since he is clearly devastated by the death of his son and tortured by guilt. Others have no compassion for him. There is a lot of discussion in town about Ethan's failures as a parent.
After a lot of experiments with the child's car seat restraints, Ethan finally discovers the probable answer to the mystery of how Nate wound up being out of the pickup that fateful day. Ethan resolves the situation, including the court case, by calling the district attorney's office to start with.
The film is very believable. The reactions of people in town to Nate's death are utterly realistic, and some of that is due to the fine ensemble acting in this film. The rest is due to a rock-solid screenplay by Catherine Trieschmann.
The tendency of some people in this film to latch onto scapegoats rather than to embrace their common humanity, flaws and all, is very familiar. It reminds me of the mood in this country right now. A lot of people are out of work. A lot of families have lost their homes to foreclosure. There are two ways to respond to this situation. We can have sympathy for people who have fallen on hard times and try to help them, as a nation. The other path is to find scapegoats and punish them for our collective failures, poor people, illegal aliens, homosexuals, Muslims, anyone we dislike. The second path is dark, and deeply anti-Christian, by the way, which of course doesn't prevent it from being embraced by Christians as well as other groups.
There aren't too many women directors around, but Gaby Dellal is one, and she directed this film. She shows impressive talent in this film. Thomas Dekker, who plays Ethan, also also wrote and performed a song heard during the credits of the film. Dekker is one of those rare young talents who makes me jealous of the young. I think I'll be seeing a lot of him in future films. This film rates a B.
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