The Ice Storm, which opened the prestigious New York Film Festival on Sept. 26, is the best film about family so far this year. Just don't think Disney, since the parents indulge in adultery and wife swapping, and the kids, ages 14 to 16, dry hump, mix drug cocktails and contemplate suicide. The setting is the plush suburb of New Canaan, Conn. The time is Thanksgiving weekend of 1973. Nixon drones denials from every TV, and in every room, children can hear their parents ripping into each other out of petty resentments that cover up more substantial betrayals. Outside, an ice storm makes the roads as treacherous as these broken relationships, and a downed power line, snapping and sparking, waits to claim a victim.
Symbolism like this can be as heavy as the weather, and the literary allusions — from James Joyce to the Johns (Updike and Cheever) — sometimes crushed the nuances in the acclaimed 1994 novel by Rick Moody on which the film is based. Not so onscreen. Ang Lee, the Taiwanian director of Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, rises to the challenge of his second English-language film, following Sense and Sensibility, with unfailing grace and humor. Working with longtime collaborator James Schamus, whose keenly observant script is a model of astute adaptation, Lee deftly tweaks the conventions of the period — wigs, whips and double-knit polyester — and connects public deceits to personal ones without compromising the feelings of the characters.
Lee's casting sense is equally unerring. Handsome Kevin Kline would hardly seem typecast as the novel's Ben Hood, a balding, pudgy smartass trying to blur his dull job and sexless marriage to Elena (Joan Allen) with booze and a fling with his neighbor's wife, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). Yet Kline subtly reveals the fears that turned Ben sour and in so doing hints at the decency his wife and two kids haven't seen for ages. Kline's multilayered performance gets every detail right.
Weaver is a wow as the wife who compensates for Jim (Jamey Sheridan), her neglectful spouse, by turning up the heat for the local wolves. Weaver nails her comic lines spectacularly. In bed with Ben, who talks golf after sex, Janey deadpans: "Ben, you're boring me. I already have a husband." Still, what sticks is the deep well of loneliness that Weaver catches in Janey.
The film's set piece, by turns hilarious and horrific, is a local "key party," a first for the Hoods. The rules are simple: The men toss their car keys into a bowl. At the end of the evening, the women fish out the keys — no looking! — and go home with the owner. Wife swapping became the suburban version of the Summer of Love. Lee, superbly abetted by cinematographer Frederick Elmes and costume designer Carol Oditz, recreates this '70s phenomenon as a nightmare vision of free love gone wrong. The sight of a visibly shaken Elena — another striking portrait of repression from Allen, after Nixon and The Crucible — going off for a revenge quickie in a car with Janey's husband leaves a crushing sense of desolation.
The teens indulge in a parody of adult sexual behavior. Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci), the precocious daughter of Ben and Elena, is hot for action. Her preppy older brother, Paul (Tobey Maguire), is off to Manhattan on the train in a desperate attempt to get laid. Wendy seeks out Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood), son of Janey and Jim, to satisfy her curiosity about his penis — within limits. "I'll touch it, but that's as far as it goes," she tells Mikey during a groping session in the Carver basement.
The sight of the young stars of Casper (Ricci) and Flipper (Wood) fiddling with each other may shock '90s prudes, but Lee handles these moments with dry wit and compassion, notably when Janey catches Wendy playing "I'll show you mine" games with Janey's shy younger son, Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). The adolescent members of the cast do their characters proud, with Ricci a particular standout. Her wonderfully funny and touching performance, capturing the defiance and confusion that come with puberty, is the film's crowning glory.
All the characters converge on the night of the ice storm. Mikey, depressed by pressures from peers and parents, is outdoors playing self-destructive games. Inside, Wendy and Sandy crawl into bed together, seeking comfort, not sex. The image of their sleeping bodies is a sweet contrast to the ensuing tragedy (unjust to reveal here), which leaves the Hoods shattered in the morning, when the family drives to the train station to pick up Paul.
This emotional climax of the film, with its warring glints of despair and hope, typifies the stunning achievement of The Ice Storm and confirms Lee as a director of the first rank. Few scenes in recent cinema are as profoundly moving as the one after Ben catches Wendy, wearing a Nixon mask, sitting astride Mikey's crotch in the Carver basement. Outraged by betrayals, including his own, Ben demands that Wendy leave with him. On the walk home in the snow, there is silence, then reconciliation. Father asks daughter if he might carry her home, like he did when she was a child. Wendy, dropping her guard, agrees, and in this single, transitory moment, Lee links the '70s and the '90s by distilling the timeless tension between the necessity and the heartbreak of growing up. Like all great films, this one takes a piece out of you.