While active since the 1980s, Atom Egoyan began to make a name of himself in the early 1990s with films such as 1993's Calendar and 1994's Exotica. However, it is 1997's The Sweet Hereafter that arguably put Egoyan's name on the map. Adapted from the 1991 novel by Russell Banks, the film focuses on a small British Columbia town that is plagued with anger after a tragic school bus accident. The plot of The Sweet Hereafter moves back and forth chronologically to show how the townsfolk were before and after the accident. Big city lawyer Mitchell Stevens hopes to turn the town's anger into a lawsuit, even though Stevens has his own problems involving his estranged drug addicted daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks).
The Sweet Hereafter was a huge success for Atom Egoyan, winning three awards at the 1997 Cannes film festival, as well winning 7 Genie Awards including Best Picture. The Sweet Hereafter was also one of the few Canadian films to receive major Oscar nominations, with the film being nominated for both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
In many ways, The Sweet Hereafter is telling a story in three different timelines. In the main plot thread, Mitchell Stevens is meeting the members of the town and trying to organize his class action lawsuit. The film also shows the events before the accident, particularly Nicole's aspirations to be a singer and her complicated relationship with her father Sam (Tom McCamus). Then there is a third plotline that takes place on a plane, where Mitchell is talking with an old friend of his estranged daughters. All of these plotlnes come together to form a cinematic fairytale of sorts, complete with multiple narrated references to The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Probably one of the most lasting effects of The Sweet Hereafter is that it helped to create a movie star out of then 18 year old actress Sarah Polley, who up until this point was best known as a child actress on the CBC television series Road to Avonlea. The film also features solid performances by Ian Holm, who won a Best Actor Genie for his role, and Bruce Greenwood.
While Atom Egoyan has remained a major fixture of the Canadian film industry since The Sweet Hereafter, this film can arguably be considered to still be his most crowning achievement.