Based on a 1984 New York Times article, Deep Powder, Mo Ogrodnik’s first feature since 1996’s Ripe, is a serviceable, if unremarkable, tale of doomed, cross-class love and criminal activity set against the remote backdrop of a New England mountain town. In the 1981-set narrative, fashion-model handsome Shiloh Fernandez plays Danny, a 20-year-old ski-lift operator under constant pressure from his single mother to go back to school. His customers are mainly arrogant, privileged kids from a prestigious local boarding school who frequently belittle him and display little regard for his solid working-class credentials. One fateful day, he makes lingering eye contact with Natasha (Haley Bennett), a pretty, blond-haired, blue-eyed dreamer. This look—a convenient cinematic shorthand—signifies a kind of love at first sight, and after Danny has returned Natasha’s lost wallet without stealing any money, they embark on a sweet affair. What Danny doesn’t know is that Natasha is a member of a secret society, the Deep Powder Alpine Country Club, which makes an annual run to Ecuador, a tradition funded by the club’s alumni who use the yearly sojourn to score an allotment of top-grade cocaine. Natasha is selected to make this year’s run, while wrong-side-of-the-tracks Danny—smitten, socially frustrated, and tempted by the promise of fast cash—is lined up by his new love to partner her on the journey, which, unsurprisingly, ends disastrously.
Even though the film is based on a true story, Ogrodnik still has work to do in crafting a convincing psychological landscape upon which to unfurl the characters’ risky, if not completely brainless, actions—and she succeeds to a degree. The region’s class divisions are sharply drawn, and character motivations are fairly well articulated; Ogrodnik makes it easy to see why hemmed-in nice-guy Danny might be tempted by the promise of social mobility, while Natasha has a tragic homelife of her own (a mother lost to suicide; a cold, distant father), and a wild, willowy streak. The wintry environs, captured with a clinical digital chill, are expansive, but uniform and glumly claustrophobic at the same time, providing an aptly ominous backdrop. Ogrodnik isn’t really interested in portraying the rich kids as anything more than spoiled assholes en bloc, but the actors in question (Josh Saladin’s Kaz is especially odious) do a solid job in nailing just that vibe, directing our affections, perhaps a little manipulatively, toward our putative outlaw pair.
Unfortunately, in opting to structure the film around a clichéd teen-love movie framework, Ogrodnik circumvents engagement with the story’s inherent darkness; it’s as though she’s scrupulously ensuring her film will play comfortably as a cautionary tale with a younger crowd. Its most intriguing questions (among them: is Natasha actually a manipulative sociopath?) go largely uninvestigated in favor of pat conclusions. Worse still, Ogrodnik exhibits a fondness for the cheesy love scene reminiscent of Nicholas Sparks adaptations—soft-focus affairs lit and shot like fashion commercials, and scored with twinkly acoustic lilts. Both Fernandez (likeable) and Bennett (only a little Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ish) give respectable performances, but neither locate an inner pain deep enough to evoke anything stronger than vague twinges of empathy from the audience. The director’s one major flash of formal invention is to occasionally intersperse the narrative with after-the-fact VHS interviews with friends and family who offer vague, Rashomon-lite ruminations on the incidents and characters involved. But a distancing device isn’t necessary with such a slim story, and the interviews only serve to make explicit subtext that’s already apparent (Natasha’s a little off the wall, Danny was impulsive, etc.).
The end result, though well-intentioned and hardly disastrous, doesn’t hit as hard as it should, even if it does bear merit as a solemn comment on America’s intractable, if rarely acknowledged, class system. However, its title, a double-edged pun on snow and cocaine, is perhaps the riskiest thing about it.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 17—27.