The Sweet Hereafter is a terribly poignant movie. There are several underlying themes of the script, including transformation, guilt, regret, blame, revenge, and deceit. The entire script is an awful cycle of deceit and blame that is generally about a school bus crash, yet goes much deeper into the lives of each character.
The inciting incident occurs when attorney Mitchell’s phone rings while he’s in a carwash, and his drug-addicted daughter, Zoe, is on the other end. Incidentally, the blues song that plays at the end of this scene transfers over to the next father-daughter relationship between Nicole and Sam, another father and daughter. The following scene takes in an airport bathroom with yet another father diapering his baby girl while Mitchell observes. I believe the writer purposely chose to connect these three things to demonstrate the dynamics of father-daughter relationships, also showing us three different lapses of time.
Billy, father of a deceased disabled son resulting from the bus crash, and Mitchell speak at the gas station, but Billy refuses to join in the lawsuit. This gets in the way of Mitchell’s case. He needs Billy to testify, because he is the one that followed the bus that morning, and he is a critical witness. Mitchell gets desperate and even goes as far as blaming television and shopping malls for paralyzing children. (Billy is the only one in the script that points out that the whole town is blaming each other for an accident.)
Each character seems to blame someone else for something. Risa, mother of one of the deceased who has an affair with Billy, told Mitchell of a drunk man named Kyle feeling trapped by his life and blaming his wife. Later, Mitchell convinces Wanda and Otto (parents of one of the children) that there is no such thing as an accident, that someone is to blame. Wanda, even after dismissing the thought of a lawsuit, begins to look for someone to blame, to go to jail, and then agrees that a lawsuit is the right choice.
Mitchell blames himself for his daughter’s condition. His constant thoughts about the past and his conversation with Alison on the plane shows that he feels regret, and his constant talk about how all of their children are dead reveals that to the audience that his daughter died a long time ago. He had the opportunity once to allow Zoe to die when she was a baby, but he was determined to save her from a spider bite, and he keeps daydreaming about that incident. Is he feeling guilty that he didn’t allow her to die then instead of watching her slowly kill herself with drugs later? Or is he feeling guilty that he no longer has control over helping “keeping her calm and relaxed so that he doesn’t let her little heart beat too fast and spread the poison around”? Zoe blames her father for having to sell her own blood to make money, because he refuses to send her anymore.
Early on in the script, Nicole – one of the survivors – observed that children made Delores, the bus driver, happy. During her deposition, she lied and accused Delores of speeding and causing the crash. On one hand, it seemed as if Nicole viewed Delores as the Pied Piper, taking the children away to a faraway place, some place “strange and new” over the mountain. Nicole was the lame one left behind in a wheel chair, and all of her playmates are gone, just like the poem. On the other hand, it seemed like she did Delores a favor by forcing her to leave town. Nicole also seems to blame herself that she is the only child that lived.
Nicole’s purpose for blaming Delores was also revenge for her father Sam’s abuse. She knows that Sam wants money, so lied in order to punish him. As Nicole reads the Pied Piper story to the children, she is symbolically reading about herself. As the Pied Piper plays his flute, her own father is robbing his daughter with his incestuous relationship, making promises that he never kept. She ends up using this to her own advantage in the end, taking control of her own life by demanding what she wants and placing blame on both of her parents for what they did or didn’t do. At the same time, Nicole also sees Mitchell as the Pied Piper, misleading the town into believing his lies. Mitchell blames Nicole for screwing up the entire lawsuit. Just as the bus went downhill before the crash, so does the lawsuit. Mitchell argues with Sam over Nicole’s testimony and blames him that something isn’t normal about a child that would do such a thing.
The script also hints that Nicole blames herself for allowing a child, Sean, to sit next to her on the bus on the day of the crash and making another student, Mason, moved to the back. Could Mason have also lived if she hadn’t made that choice? Risa also seems to blame herself for not allowing her son, Sean, to stay home on the day of the crash, even when he begged her. Coincidentally, Risa was almost run over the same day, and Sean glared at Doris as if she was to blame.
There are a lot of symbolic references in the script. For example, Risa’s husband Wendell’s application of enamel on the crack in the tub correlates with the crack in his relationship with her. Billy’s shower washes away the enamel, in much the same way he’s taking away whatever it is Risa once had with her husband. Risa replaces the enamel over the crack when Billy leaves the motel – symbolically covering up their affair.
Another symbolic reference is when Sam paints the wheelchair ramp green. He is looking for money, and the ramp is symbolic of what he is looking for in the lawsuit. He later paints it red, which is symbolic of blood – or life – as his daughter was the only child spared in the accident.
Delores equated the children as berries. Children were the fruit of her happiness, and she genuinely cared for them, referring to them as “my kids”. At one point, she even doubts herself and begins to blame herself that perhaps she could have been speeding on the day of the crash. (Ironically, her husband Abbott and Delores both say that a true jury are the peers in a person’s town.)
By placing the events in a non-linear fashion, it shows the parallel events in each character’s lives. In the end, it all fits together beautifully. The viewers want to know what really happened in the crash, so by placing it at the end of act two, not only does it cause suspense, but it allows the writer to place the miscellaneous twists and turns surrounding the crash in different perspectives. Each character, even if they don’t leave the town or physically die, ends up in “someplace strange and new”, leaving behind the life they once knew.