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Film / The Sweet Hereafter

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"Something's happening that's taking our children away."

A 1997 Canadian drama film, adapted from the 1991 novel of the same name by Russell Banks and directed by Atom Egoyan, about a small town in British Columbia (upstate New York in the novel) dealing with the aftermath of a horrific school bus accident—the bus skids off a road due to a slick patch of ice and sinks into a frozen lake—that killed many of the town's children.

The movie begins with a lawyer named Mitchell (Ian Holm) arriving in the town to try and persuade the grieving parents to join a class action suit against the bus manufacturer, claiming it was defective. His arrival polarizes the town, with some families seeing the suit as a way to gain some closure, some seeing it as a potential financial windfall, and some seeing it as an outsider trying to profit from a tragedy.

The film doesn't have much of a plot, instead focusing more on the families in the small town and how they deal with what happened. The film is somewhat non-linear, with scenes from both before and after the accident throughout the movie. Egoyan chooses not to show the accident itself until fairly late in the film.


The film also uses an ongoing allegory, mostly relayed by 15 year old survivor Nicole (Sarah Polley), of the old story of the The Pied Piper of Hamelin to examine the effects of removing most of the children from the village.

This film contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Location Change: The book takes place in Upstate New York, while the film moves to British Columbia, Canada.
  • Adults Are Useless: Played for tragedy. The bus driver survives the accident but can't save most of the children. Even worse, one of the fathers happens to be following the bus when it goes off the road, and can only watch helplessly as the bus sinks under the ice, killing both of his children.
  • Amoral Attorney: Many of the townspeople see Mitchell this way, and with good reason. After all, he is essentially an ambulance-chaser come to profit from a horrific tragedy. Of course, it gets more complicated when we learn more about Mitchell, who actually identifies with the town and genuinely thinks he's helping them.
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  • Anachronic Order: The film jumps around between before the accident and the aftermath of the accident.
  • Break the Cutie: Nicole, who was a budding country music prodigy before the accident, which left her paralyzed, as well as traumatised from seeing the deaths of most of the other children on the bus. Of course, she may already have been somewhat broken on account of the Parental Incest.
  • Creator Cameo: Russell Banks plays a doctor treating Nicole after the accident.
  • Despair Event Horizon:
    • Already crossed by much of the town, particularly the bus driver. One of the few people who hasn't given in to despair is a father who lost his wife some years back and is able to deal with the grief.
    • It's also pretty clear that Mitchell is approaching it with regards to his daughter, who is a rapidly deteriorating drug addict.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Nicole's lie during the deposition, in order to get back at her sexually abusive father, has elements of this. Of course, it's complicated by the fact that, on the surface at least, she's mad at him for stopping the sexual abuse.
  • Death of a Child:
    • The worst fear of an entire town — the tragic mass death of dozens of children in a freak accident — comes true.
    • Also true for Mitchell, who is watching his beloved but estranged daughter succumb to drug addiction before his eyes. Made even more poignant when we learn later in the movie about an incident from her childhood in which she nearly died from a spider bite.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Subverted. The crash is in no way the fault of the bus driver, Dolores, despite what Nicole claims during the deposition. Of course, this is little comfort to her.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Subverted. The bus skid on ice and goes off the road but, instead of exploding, it breaks through ice and sinks into a lake. The shot is simple and incredibly disturbing because we're used to this trope.
  • The Film of the Book: Based on the novel by Russell Banks.
  • Hidden Depths: Mitchell, especially once he relates the story of his daughter's near death experience. While his motives certainly aren't 100% pure, he does genuinely believe that he's helping the parents deal with their grief.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Stephens comes across like this at first, while Nicole really is this.
    Mitchell Stephens: You're a hell of a poker player, kid.
    Nicole: Thanks.
  • Odd Friendship: Though Nicole doesn't approve of the lawsuit at all, she likes Mitchell Stephens, because he treats her like a normal person.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Many, many parents lose their kids in the accident and are struck with grief, but special mention goes to Billy Ansel, who was not only a widower, but had BOTH of his twin children die in the accident.
  • Parental Incest: A major subplot involves Nicole's incestuous relationship with her father. When he breaks it off after she is crippled in the crash, she sabotages Mitchell's case (of which her father is a major proponent) in retribution.
  • Small Town Boredom: Nicole, who dreams of a career as a country musician, has shades of this in the scenes set before the accident. Then it got worse.
  • Snow Means Death: Very much so. Heck, the snow (or ice rather) causes death. Also used to contrast with the scenes before the accident, in which the snow symbolizes serenity.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The novel is narrated by multiple first-person speakers, beginning with the driver.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Played with. While the accident is hardly a secret, its aftermath brings some to light (to the audience, not necessarily the other townspeople), including an affair and a case of Parental Incest.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Russell Banks' novel was inspired by the 1989 Alton, Texas bus crash.