The plot of The Sweet Hereafter isn't much of a dramatic surprise. By the time we watch the school bus winding through the hills, plucking children from the shoulders of rural lanes, like brightly colored berries, we've seen from the inside the heart of this complicated, compelling tragedy. The shock of the movie is how quickly one accident - a school bus sliding off a snow-covered road into icy lake waters - destroys a town's future. The news is chilling - 14 children dead; one beautiful teenager crippled; the driver's body and her reputation severely injured. As the calamity unfolded, I found myself recounting the events of two other real-life tragedies - the 1988 Carrollton, Ky., crash and the 1989 Alton, Texas, tragedy. In Carrollton, a pickup truck driven by a drunk driver collided with a school bus carrying a church group, killing 26 of the youngsters. In Alton, a Coca-Cola delivery truck rammed a school bus, deflecting the bus into a watery caliche pit. Twenty-one of the 81 children aboard the bus were killed. The events that followed those catastrophic collisions will be repeated here. Weighing the human loss
Who's to blame for the accident? Who's responsible? The real narrative in The Sweet Hereafter is the intersecting stories of witnesses struggling with the aftermath of human loss. The stories shift in time and tone, circling back to interrogate the tangles and knots of the bonds between children and their families. Sadly, the children on this bus are typical of the children riding America's school buses today. They come to us abused, both mentally and sexually. They come to us from one-parent homes with little or no supervision. They come to us frightened by the world they live in. The Sweet Hereafter reminds us of what a difference our school bus drivers can make in the lives of their passengers. Director Atom Egoyan does an excellent job of developing an empathy for the children and the families in this tragedy. Tragedy turns to blame
And finally, let's not forget the attorney (played by Ian Holm), who immediately appears on the scene to exploit the parents and the surviving children. Once a serious collision has occurred, the finger-pointing begins. The Sweet Hereafter reminds us of how others hold our feet to the fire. A school district's buses are its greatest liability. And the school bus driver is the only person in the school day with life-and-death responsibility. The Sweet Hereafter reminds us of how a heartbeat of inattention can change a family and a town forever. Our children deserve the best from us, and nothing less than that. Editor's note: The Sweet Hereafter, based on the 1991 novel by Russell Banks, collected Academy Award nominations for best director and best adapted screenplay. Dennis Essary is transportation supervisor at Beaverton (Ore.) School District and a member of SBF's Editorial Advisory Board.