This is a film about tragedy, alienation and the destructiveness of guilt. Alice Goodwin (Sigourney Weaver) is a farm wife and part-time school nurse; she seems to be far above both tasks and a little out of sorts with the kind of life that her husband Howard (David Strathairn) has chosen for them. She has her farm chores in the morning in addition to getting her two little girls (Emma and Clair) off to school before she herself heads off to cope with sick, distasteful children. Brat Robbie MacKessy, whose mother constantly sends him to school sick, is a perfect example.
Best friends Theresa (Julianne Moore) and Dan (Ron Lea) visit often and the women babysit each other’s girls routinely. The routine is broken one day when Alice, who’s caring for Theresa’s daughters including her own, becomes distracted, allowing Theresa’s youngest daughter, the 2-year old Lizzie, to drown in the pond on Alice’s property.
That tragedy sets the stage for Alice’s massive guilt, one that serves to destroy her relationship with Theresa, Howard and her own daughters. Alice can hardly function and so Howard’s mother Nellie (Louise Fletcher) comes to help out. Nellie may be good for the family, but for Alice she’s just another red flag pointing out Alice’s incompetence and neglect. Alice becomes even more alienated. On top of that tragedy comes little Robbie, falsely accusing her of child abuse and Alice is swiftly arrested. Now, everything she said in the wake of the drowning as she wallowed in her own guilt is thrown back at her. She must be guilty of this too.
Sigourney Weaver does a terrific job as the smart-mouthed Alice who is seemingly above it all before things begin to unravel for her. You can see the wheels of her brain spinning as she tries to self-destruct in punishment for her neglectful deed. It’s also what makes us dislike her a little too. We know she’s innocent of the Robbie matter, but her smugness irks us nonetheless. Still, it is precisely that smugness that allows Alice to survive as her world crumbles before her eyes. Strathairn is always good – here playing the man who must save Alice even from herself as he copes with the widening array of problems for him and his family when Alice is off in prison. It seems as if Theresa is the only straight arrow among them.
The film itself is interesting but more maddening than anything: daughter Emma is a squealing brat we wish would have drowned in the pond instead of Lizzie; husband Howard is alternately oblivious, dumbfounded or caring and Alice, well, she’s a complex set of nuts and bolts who’s a little too smart for her own good. Yes, there’s tragedy and Alice is caught up in a horrible web of hate with the Robbie affair and that makes us very angry. Like I said: very maddening. But as much as I wanted to, I really didn’t feel great sympathy for Alice and I think it’s the way she was portrayed by Weaver.
Lotta says I loved the cast but the story and characters cooled things off for me.