It is 1969, and the Field family lives a quietly tumultuous existence in a sterile Toronto suburb under the shadow of a tragedy the parents refuse to face: the suspicious death of their first-born son. The father, Jim (Callum Keith Rennie), runs the household with a tyrannical military precision that conceals a much deeper instability, while the mother, Mary (Miranda Richardson), lies impassively on the living room couch, debilitated by depression.
As the parents struggle under the weight of this ever-present absence, their three teenaged daughters act as caretakers. Each daughter tries to escape the messiness of her home life in her own way: the rebellious Lou (Katherine Isabelle) constantly defies her father and pursues a relationship with an American hippie; the attractive Sandy (Kristin Adams) dreams of being the perfect homemaker and mother and becomes involved with a married shoe salesman (Mark McKinney); dutiful Norma (Monté Gagné) obsesses about her dead brother while going out of her way to gain her father’s approval.
In the family’s backyard is a fallout shelter, a symbol of safety that years earlier was the stage for some of their most traumatic moments – when Jim insisted the family spend two weeks in the bunker as rehearsal for a nuclear holocaust. Skilfully intercut throughout the film, these scenes provide dramatic context for the film’s climax, when long-suppressed tensions and unspoken truths finally surface.
A heartfelt, touching and acerbically funny adaptation of Barbara Gowdy’s 1990 novel, Falling Angels beautifully juxtaposes the falsity of suburban security with the reality of the Fields’ utter lack of communication, understanding and trust in one another. Director Scott Smith, following on his debut feature rollercoaster (1999), once again proves himself a keen observer of character drama, particularly with regards to teenaged turmoil. The evocative costume and set design perfectly convey the slightly garish feel of Canadian suburbia in the sixties, while the exemplary cast delivers finely tuned performances that capture the emotional and psychological truths of their characters.
Falling Angels was very well received by critics upon its release but failed to draw a large audience. It was nominated for six Genie Awards, including nods for Esta Spalding’s adapted screenplay and Greg Middleton’s cinematography. It was also named one of Canada’s Top Ten of 2003 by an independent, national panel comprised of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and industry professionals.