If a child dies because his parents are fuck-ups, do those parents still deserve our sympathy? In the opening scenes of director Gaby Dellal’s small-town melodrama Angels Crest, we meet an adorable 3-year-old who lives with his laid-back dad Thomas Dekker in a sparsely furnished garage with broken windows. When the boy asks if they can go play in the snow, Dekker drives him out to the woods so they can build a snowman together, but the kid falls asleep in his carseat, so Dekker leaves him in the truck with the heater running while he tracks a deer. When Dekker returns, his son is gone. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother, Lynn Collins, is waking up drunk—and late for work—in the bed of a man she shouldn’t be with. When Dekker and Collins’ son is found dead a day after his disappearance, their friends and neighbors try to be supportive. But let’s face it: These dopes don’t make it easy.
Dellal and screenwriter Catherine Trieschmann could’ve gone any number of directions with their adaptation of Leslie Schwartz’s novel—a book that spreads its story across multiple perspectives. They choose to emphasize the emotional intensity, both in the reactions of a grieving community and in a plot that sees troubled district attorney Jeremy Piven roll into town to prosecute Dekker. Angels Crest is a short movie, with a vividly chilly look and a strong, professional cast. Mira Sorvino plays a waitress and a friend to Dekker and Collins, while Elizabeth McGovern and Kate Walsh pop up as a lesbian couple who quarrel over the case. Dellal and Trieschmann mainly use these townsfolk as local color, though, keeping the focus on Dekker and Collins as they grapple with their guilt.
Angels Crest has weaknesses that are tough to overcome. It relies too much on two particularly played-out indie clichés: a spare, plunky soundtrack, and a narrative structure that teases out characters’ backstory far longer than necessary. (Example of the latter: When Piven shows up, a reporter asks him, “Can you separate this case from your own past?” What is that past? The movie’s in no hurry to let us know.) But the biggest problem with Angels Crest is that while it’s easy to feel Dekker and Collins’ pain—especially the former, as he obsessively buys carseats to see if the manufacturer is at fault for his son getting out—it’s hard not to think that some sort of tragedy was inevitable for these two. After all: He’s irresponsible, she’s an alcoholic. As characters and as people, they never really develop any further dimension.