"The Sweet Hereafter" is another denomination for paradise, as it is to be enjoyed in afterlife. In the Robert Browning poem about the Pied Piper, which is read by Nicole, the only child surviving the bus accident, one of the kids is lame and cannot follow the call of the Piper. It is therefore "bereft of all the pleasant sights they see" and henceforth has to endure the dullness of life in a town that has been deprived of all playmates.
The same happens to Nicole, who will be confined to a life in a wheelchair while the entire young population of the little town of Sam Dent, British Columbia, is now enjoying the pleasures of heaven. Her sadness is understandable, but it is equally plausible that it should lead to anger and the urge to revenge.
It is obviously the lawyer Mitchell Stephens that provokes her indignation. He can also be seen as a kind of pied piper, but not one whose commitment leads to the entrance of paradise. His goal is the fulfillment of earthly materialistic pleasures, and therefore he tries to persuade the relatives of the deceased children to file a lawsuit against the bus company for damage. In case of success, he would also benefit from the verdict and encash one third of the allocated sum.
The necessity of mourning for the bereaved ones has been substituted by sheer business matters, and the greed for money has become the new incentive. And it is Stephens who has to be blamed for that change of disposition.
But there is no compensation possible for the loss of human life. Nicole understands that and makes a fateful decision. Being chosen as a chief witness and asked in a pretrial-hearing about the circumstances of the bus accident, Nicole consciously gives a false testimony accusing the bus driver of having driven at excessive speed. Now the planned trial against the bus company cannot take place, and Mitchell Stephen's materialistic dreams are shattered.
Standing in clear opposition to the girl, whose desire it is to get access to heaven, that lawyer can truly be considered an advocate of hell. We get introduced to him when, right at the beginning, he is trapped in a car wash whose mechanism cannot be brought to a halt. It is here that he gets the first cellular phone call by his daughter Zoe who is equality trapped, as her drug addiction and her later-revealed AIDS infection has led her to a dead end of her life from which no deliverance route seems to be attainable.
Certainly her father can do nothing to help her. When Zoe, whose name ironically means "Life", tries to contact him, we can see that her phone booth is located in a rundown area of a larger city - an image that can be seen as a metaphor for the desolation of her inner state of mind. She addresses herself to her father out of utter helplessness, and it is deplorable to see that he is unable to respond. The only thing he can do for her is to "accept the charges" for the call - another indication of a mind set only on materialistic issues but not prepared to offer the much needed spiritual help.
Zoe nevertheless does make an attempt. She reminds her daddy of a childhood memory when they both were inside a car wash and she "started playing with the automatic window" - a story that, if we accept the car wash as an image for hell, reveals her strong desire of escape and thus approximates her character to the children willingly seduced by the Pied Piper.
However, Mitchell Stephens is incapable of establishing a meaningful communication with his daughter - he thinks that she is merely "calling for money". It is only much later that he comes to a heart-breaking insight. When accidentally meeting a former childhood friend of Zoe on an airplane, he recalls another memory from the past, this time when his then three-year-old daughter nearly died from a spider bite. Although he does not clearly reveal it, the spectator senses that Zoe has now finally succumbed to her drug addiction - and therefore become just another victim of the Pied Piper's power of attraction.