Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter is a serenely powerful, deeply moving tale of loss and healing. At the heart of the tragedy is a school bus accident in a small Canadian town, resulting in the death of fourteen children. First, we meet Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), a tort lawyer who comes into town in order to shore up clients for a class-action lawsuit on the accident. He seems dispassionate and mechanical about his work, except in his resolute belief that someone must ultimately pay. Harboring an inner guilt and pain over his inability to save his own drug-addicted daughter, he, too, bears the scars of a lost child. The bus driver, Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), severely injured from the accident, then provides her deposition under the gaze of her invalid husband. Surrounded by photographs of the school children, it is evident that she sees them as the children she never had. A local mechanic, Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), lost his children in the accident, but refuses to participate in the lawsuit, and is overtly hostile to the interloper. Having earlier lost his wife to cancer, he is already a survivor who understands the cruelty of fate, and the futility and divisiveness of Mitchell’s actions. Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), permanently crippled from the accident, provides the final testimony. Robbed of her childhood, she sees the destructive toll of the lawsuit, and exacts revenge.
The aftermath of the tragedy is achronologically documented through four different narrative perspectives: Mitchell, Dolores, Billy, and Nicole. Egoyan uses non-linearity as a means of exploring the process of grief. The bus accident is almost incidental, an accepted fact that only serves as the catalyst in the film. Inevitably, The Sweet Hereafter is a story of individual survival: the painful, intensely personal struggle to find a reason to continue after a profound loss. We see a glimpse of it in Billy’s morning ritual, following his wife’s death, of waving to his children while driving behind the school bus. Mitchell continues to accept inopportune collect calls from his incoherent, manipulative daughter, if only to find solace in the knowledge that she is still alive. At the end of the film, it is the idea that life does go on, albeit through new and different rituals, that sustains these characters after their emotional evisceration. The Sweet Hereafter is a truly remarkable film, an elegantly realized, heartbreaking testament to the tenacity of the human spirit.
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