Arthur, the tentative teenage hero of "Snow Angels," really can't take a compliment. "I like your shoes," says a school acquaintance. "What's wrong with them...

Arthur, the tentative teenage hero of “Snow Angels,” really can’t take a compliment.

“I like your shoes,” says a school acquaintance.

“What’s wrong with them?” he shoots back.

Like a lot of the characters in this intelligent, superbly acted adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s troubling 1994 novel about small-town limits and desires, Arthur (played by rising star Michael Angarano) lacks self-esteem.

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His parents (Griffin Dunne, Jeannetta Arnette) are splitting up because of the father’s infidelity. Arthur’s one-time baby-sitter, Annie (Kate Beckinsale), is trying to be diplomatic with her volatile husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), while having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her best friend, Barb (Amy Sedaris).

Almost everyone’s on edge, fearing that secrets can never be kept in such a small community. Then Annie and Glenn’s 4-year-old daughter disappears in the icy woods. The seriously unhinged Glenn, a born-again Christian, uses religion to justify his excesses. Arthur makes a dreadful discovery, and the town finds itself united in the worst way.

It sounds like a tacky soap opera, but the young director, David Gordon Green (“All the Real Girls”), and his cinematographer, Tim Orr, almost never allow stereotypes to intrude. They work with the actors to give each scene a cliché-shattering distinction — and with William Anderson (Peter Weir’s brilliant editor) to sharpen the cutting within and between crucial episodes.

Rockwell gives a towering performance, perhaps the best of his zigzagging career, as a one-time charmer who has grown up to be an essentially unemployable husband and father. Beckinsale is also at her finest here, hinting at the attraction that once held them together while demonstrating why the relationship cannot continue.

Most of the characters are trapped adults who recognize that they don’t have a lot of options left. Arthur’s father explains to his son that his mistress is “just a friend, a regular person,” but Arthur isn’t buying this justification for betrayal. In an electric scene, he accuses his dad of selfishness but claims he and his mother can live with it.

That’s one point for Arthur’s self-esteem. Only the kids, and a few adults whose goofy behavior verges on the comical (Katt’s always-hungry hunk, Tom Noonan as a frustrated high-school band leader), provide consistent relief from the quiet desperation of the town.

Especially effective are the puppy-love scenes between Arthur and another high-school student, Lila (Olivia Thirlby), who tries to establish an equality in their relationship. They’re too young and inexperienced to feel compromised in their affection for each other, but will they grow up to be just like the adults?

The movie’s bittersweet finale leaves that question open. Meanwhile, the freshness of Thirlby (the heroine’s pal from “Juno”) and Angarano (so good in last year’s “Black Irish”) provides this bleak, gripping story with its chief source of hope and renewal.

John Hartl: