Just how off-key is Snow Cake? In the opening sequence, flighty Emily Hampshire corners prickly Alan Rickman, insisting, "You look like a man who needs to talk." And even though he really wants to be left alone, he gives her a ride. Then they stop for gas and Hampshire buys a bag of sparkly, chiming toys, which give director Marc Evans and screenwriter Angela Pell an emotional capper for the next scene, when Rickman's car gets hit by a semi truck, killing Hampshire and sending the toys flying. As the soundtrack fills with soft tinkling, viewers have to wonder, "Is this movie kidding?"
It gets weirder. Wracked with guilt, Rickman goes to apologize to Hampshire's mother, Sigourney Weaver, a high-functioning autistic woman who's unaffected by her daughter's death, but flustered by Rickman's presence. ("I don't do social," she explains.) Once he agrees to stay through the funeral and help her take out her garbage—a task she's too obsessively fastidious to do by herself—Weaver calms down, and the two develop a friendly relationship based on jumping on trampolines, eating snow, and playing a version of Scrabble with made-up words.
Rickman and Weaver are both game, as is Carrie-Anne Moss, as the helpful next-door neighbor whom Weaver thinks is whorish but Rickman thinks is sweet. But Snow Cake is one of those blinkered indie films in which the only decent people are the sullen, the childlike, and the afflicted. Everyone else is either a phony or a creep—so Evans and Pell largely avoid them, except to score easy laughs and cheap scorn out of their reactions to Weaver's eccentricities.
And yet, for every three eye-roll-worthy scenes, Snow Cake offers one that's genuinely funny or moving. Immediately after a clichéd melodrama moment at the funeral, in which the truck driver who killed Hampshire walks into the church and the organist stops playing, Weaver's dad rises and delivers a legitimately tear-jerking eulogy, reading from a children's book about autism that Hampshire was working on when she died. And a few scenes later, when Weaver does an inappropriate happy-dance at the funeral reception, the movie goes inside her head to show that she's mimicking a dance her daughter used to do, paying tribute to her the only way she knows. If only Snow Cake had hewed closer to this idea of showing what an adult autist's life and experiences are like, rather than getting caught up in Rickman's rote re-awakening, it could've been as powerful as it strains to be.