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MOVIE REVIEW

Cold and alone in the world, two souls meet

Sigourney Weaver stars as an autistic woman living in rural Ontario in 'Snow Cake .' Sigourney Weaver stars as an autistic woman living in rural Ontario in "Snow Cake ." (neil davidson)

Beware of movie stars portraying the afflicted. On the other hand, treasure any movie that hands Alan Rickman a leading role.

The small Canadian drama "Snow Cake " prompts many emotions, not least of which is gratitude for temporarily freeing this great, undersung actor from the bondage of Severus Snape . Most of the mixed feelings, though, arise from Sigourney Weaver in the role of Linda Freeman , an autistic woman living in rural Ontario. The performance is brave, difficult, inventive, meticulously researched, fully felt. And you never forget you're watching someone pretend.

Is this because of our own discomfort? Because Weaver's too big a star to sink out of sight? Or is it because the movie, written by Angela Pell and directed by Marc Evans , is too small to rise up and meet Linda more than halfway? "Snow Cake" isn't "Rain Woman," exactly, but still there's the sense of packaging a prickly, mysterious subject into convenient dramatic shape.

Against that is the pleasure of watching Rickman play Alex Hughes , a wreck of an Englishman crossing Canada in a rental car. He's fleeing his past -- it involves jail time and distant violence -- and almost against his will picks up a young hitchhiker named Vivienne (Emily Hampshire ). Rather, she picks him out of a diner full of travelers because he looks like "a man who needs to talk." That he does, even if it takes him the entire movie to do so.

Vivienne's a kook and a chatterbox, but Hampshire makes the character strangely endearing to Alex and to us, so it's with regrets that she disappears suddenly from the movie and he feels compelled to visit her mother. This is Linda, a restless woman-child who can't make eye contact but does her best to be social. "I'm supposed to offer you something, would you like some herbal tea, I have 18 different varieties," she blurts in an unsteady drone.

Another character describes her as "high functioning, can talk a glass eye to sleep, but can't tie her shoelace." Linda eats snow (thus the title), owns a backyard trampoline. Intensely germophobic, she won't let anyone into her kitchen, although she prevails on Alex to stay until trash-collection day because she "doesn't do garbage." Conveniently, this gives him time to attract the attention of others in her small town, particularly Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss ), the attractive and accommodating lady next door.

Well, the man needs healin', but it's to Rickman's credit that Alex's psychic scars seem too deep to be cured by a few rolls in the futon, even if it's with the babe from "The Matrix ." The almost tactile sadness this actor has carried with him from 1991's "Truly Madly Deeply" all the way to Harry Potter is refined here to a thing of ruinous purity -- an entire belief system based on disenchantment. "Snow Cake" is conventional in its slow arc toward personal betterment, but one look into Rickman's tormented eyes tells us some things can't be fixed.

Weaver's Linda is another matter. The actress doesn't use her eyes but rather her flailing arms and the forward thrust of her chest to convey this woman who understands just enough to know she stands forever outside human society. "Snow Cake" is about grief and its processing, both of which Linda may be immune to, yet the filmmakers aren't sure whether that's a tragedy or a state of grace. (Either, presumably, would be immaterial to an autistic.)

The actress just plays the part as honestly as she can, even when the script gives her a lovely but fraudulent Big Speech about her favorite made-up Scrabble word, "dazlious." "Snow Cake" is dazlious, too: overly forced, a shade too whimsical, but filling a void other words and other movies haven't the nerve or errant taste to confront.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Snow Cake

Directed by: Marc Evans

Written by: Angela Pell

Starring: Alan Rickman , Sigourney Weaver , Carrie-Anne Moss , Emily Hampshire

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 112 minutes

Unrated (vehicular violence, mild sexuality, language)

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