Falling Angels, based on the novel by Barbara Gowdy, is one of the most effective family dramas to emerge in a good long while. Set at the end of the 1960s, the film follows the Field family through their trials and tribulations over a particularly tumultuous couple of months. Mother Mary (Miranda Richardson) spends the majority of her day lying on the couch, hopped up on pills to deal with her depression - while dad Jim (Callum Keith Rennie) uses his military background to run his household. Their three daughters have problems of their own: Lou (Katherine Isabelle) is a rebellious sort who's just begun a relationship with a draft dodger from the States; Sandy (Kirsten Adams) has also started seeing someone, a sleazy shoe salesman (played a little too convincingly by Mark McKinney), and honestly hopes to settle down with him; Norma (Monte Gagne) is the outcast of the family, with her extremely low self-confidence and fixation on their dead brother. Not surprisingly, Falling Angels doesn't contain much in the way of plot - that's par for the course with movies of this type - but the characters are so compelling here that it's barely noticeable until the very end (which goes on a bit longer than it should). Director Scott Smith has a keen eye for '60s details (the film feels authentic, from the Volkswagen minibus that Lou's boyfriend drives to the old-school TV commercials that can occasionally be glimpsed), and he's assembled a pitch-perfect cast. Rennie surely must've been tempted to channel Robert Duvall's tough-as-nails Great Santini character, but he manages to turn Jim into a far more complex figure. His good intentions rarely wind up the way he hopes (a routine Scrabble game turns into an awkward spelling battle between Jim and Lou), mostly because he refuses to see things from his wife or daughters' point of view. The only weak link is Miranda Richardson's Mary; the character isn't developed to the extent where we understand her indolence. Jim's behavior would indicate that Mary's been forced to withdraw completely from the world, but the screenplay never really allows us to get under her skin. Still, that's a minor complaint for a film that's otherwise surprisingly moving and emotional.
--Unknown/ Reel Film Reviews - Review
September 17, 2003
By Dennis Harvey
Successfully adapting Canadian author Barbara Gowdy's 1990 novel, "Falling Angels" is a dysfunctional-family tale that confirms soph helmer Scott Smith ("Rollercoaster") as a keen observer of character drama, particularly in the realm of teenage turmoil. Set in late-1960s Toronto suburbia, pic deftly balances elements of pathos, humor and the grotesque while maintaining a low-key tenor. That artful restraint might actually hinder theatrical exposure, as selling points are not obvious or easily encapsulated. However, topliner Miranda Richardson's presence should help, in tandem with good reviews and better word-of-mouth wherever feature gains a foothold. Ancillary prospects, particularly in broadcast, should be brisk.
Esta Spalding's expert screenplay compresses some story elements, but otherwise remains true to the book in both plot and tone. It's 1969, but the counterculture hasn't yet reached the protags' tidy 'burb -- a fact that especially irks Lou (Katherine Isabelle), most outwardly disgruntled among the Field family's three nearly adult daughters. She's openly sarcastic and hostile toward dad Jim (Callum Keith Rennie), whom she blames for all their woes.
It's not an unreasonable accusation. While he maintains the extroverted, back-slapping manner suitable to his job as a used-car salesman, Jim runs the household like a drill sergeant, and his frequent explosions of temper suggest deeper instability. Resulting tense climate has already taken a severe toll on mom Mary (Richardson), a onetime dancer who's long since checked out -- she sits on the living room couch, watching TV and drinking cocktails.
Relegated to being both housekeepers and caregivers, the daughters each find their own ways of coping. Private chain-smoker Lou has vague fantasies of rebellion, which find a seemingly perfect mentor in the form of self-styled hippie Tom (Kett Turton), a fellow student newly arrived from the States. Pretty-in-pink blonde Sandy (Kristin Adams) is eager to use traditional feminine charm toward any possible escape. She lunges at the first man to come along, married would-be swinger Reg (Mark McKinney).
Wallflowerish Norma (Monte Gagne) is the lone daddy's-girl. She also carries a torch for the dark secret everyone else would prefer to keep buried: The girls once had an infant brother who was either accidentally or intentionally dropped from Niagara Falls.
As story builds from one small event to another, the clan's uneasy insularity unravels. Things climax during one long night of intercut activities: Lou and Tom do LSD in the backyard bomb shelter; drunken Jim gives Norma a wee-hours driving lesson; Sandy, meeting her lover in a cheap motel, is informed his twin brother (McKinney again) wants to join the "party;" and a briefly neglected mom climbs onto the roof, bringing things full circle to the funeral sequence that starts pic.
Interspersed are glimpses of the event that did most to damage them all. Ten years earlier, Jim had forced the family into that bomb shelter for two weeks' "practice" dominated by both parents' alcohol consumption.
Grim as much of content is, atmosphere is often mordantly comic, even during the most appalling incidents. Smith handles complex, troubling agenda here with quiet skill, while an exemplary cast maintains sympathy without pushing for sentiment.
Richardson's glazed, M.I.A. mother reps a nice change of pace from her usual, more brittle screen characters. Smith ably manages to offset Jim's ogre-ish behavior with a hapless pathos -- as does McKinney, in a more caricatured role.
But pic belongs primarily to the young female thesps, who are excellent. While at first glance it appears that classic "smart one" Lou will be major focus here, there's satisfaction in the way that story eventually
--Dennis Harvey/ Variety - Review