Lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) comes to town preying on the grief of the citizens who have lost their children or seen them harmed when a school bus slid off the road and sank through a frozen lake. He encounters a network of secrets and distorted perceptions of blame, guilt, lies, and victimhood revealed by flashbacks. Grieving the loss of his challenged son, the sinister but simple motel keeper, Wendell (Maury Chaykin), warns Stephens off the case, blaming parents, children, drivers, and the road. He does not know that his wife has been sleeping in one of the vacant rooms with a good-looking widower whose son and daughter both drowned.

The Otto family, especially the mother (Arsinée Khanjian) are destroyed by the loss of their beloved adopted son, a smiling native child, called Bear. They are confused. On the one hand, they want nothing because their loss was accidental; on the other, they want vengeance because someone must be blamed for their overwhelming pain. The bus driver, Dolores, who has lost so many of "her kids" seems not to have grasped the full extent of the tragedy or the possibility that all could be blamed on her.

And yet it could. The crucial evidence is the speed at which she took the last downhill curve. The key witness is a teenager, Nicole (Sarah Polley), who sat just behind the driver and survived the accident as a paraplegic. Her father is eager for her to testify, hoping for a large settlement. It slowly emerges that his seemingly close relationship with Nicole before the accident was incestuous. Now she is seething with anger toward him--because of his past abuse? or because of his present abandonment? or both? She claims that Dolores was driving too fast. The case collapses. Stephens later sees Dolores driving a group of seniors.


How can a film be made of such an awful event? Every storyteller has her own sense of causation and injury, tempered by a personal legacy of guilt--adultery, incest, violence. As result, the accident is different each time it is told. Things are not perfect in Stephens's own life; his chronically depressed and addicted daughter calls him erratically for money and other help. Her squandered potential reminds him of the pain of losing a child whether she is dead or not. Can a value be set on these kinds of losses? Must every victim find a perpetrator? And how often do the wounded construct a plausible tale to satisfy the law and assuage the sense of loss with money?

Successive chapters in the book are written from the perspective of one or another character. In the film, the varying perspectives are still there, but they are revealed objectively to the viewer who is taken from one character's life to another and back. Moreover, this film features superb acting directed by a master filmmaker. Shot in the snow-bound interior of British Columbia (rather than upstate New York), the successive flashback scenes of the bus stopping to pick up children and slowly creeping along the sunlit highway are unforgettable.

Primary Source

Alliance Video; New Line Home Video