Moviegoers looking for action or explosions should steer clear of “Spring Forward,” because despite the title’s hint of quick movement, the picture is actually a quiet, gentle piece recording the development of a friendship over the course of a year, beginning in spring and ending in winter. Viewers interested in well-drawn characters, incisive dialogue, telling episodes and superlative acting, on the other hand, should seek out this little gem.

The debut feature of playwright Tom Gilroy, the picture lovingly details the gradual growth of respect and affection between two Parks Service workers in a small Connecticut town. One is Murph (Ned Beatty), an old-timer on the verge of retirement, and the other Paul (Liev Schreiber), a young man just released from jail who’s anxious to set himself straight and worried that he won’t succeed. As the year rolls on, we watch as the men get to know one another and hesitantly share secrets and beliefs, growing so close that by Christmas, when Murph’s at the point of departing, it’s difficult for them to separate. We see the development of their relationship through both interaction with third parties–Fredrickson (Campbell Scott), an officious young fellow who’s getting rid of some unwanted goods by donating them to the town; Fran (Ian Hart), a vagrant who went to school with Murph’s sick son; Georgia (Peri Gilpin, who plays Roz on “Frasier”), a gutsy newcomer to town whose interest in Paul Murph slyly encourages–and extended conversations between the leads. Until the last reel, when the fellows get involved in a rather histrionic scene with a hysterical mother (Catherine Kellner) and her young daughter Hope (Hallee Hirsh), nothing in the film seems forced or overly melodramatic; instead, the narrative moves at an engagingly loose, unpressured pace that mirrors the rhythms of real life rather than the phonily hectic style of most movies.

A measured, ruminative picture like this couldn’t work without expert acting, especially (since it’s essentially a two-character piece) from the leads. Beatty does a career-topping turn as the kind-hearted, surprisingly serious Murph; there’s a wonderful naturalness to everything he does, and he pulls off moments that could easily have become maudlin with dignity and restraint. Surprisingly, Schreiber, who often overdoes things, matches him note for note, building a characterization that grows in depth and poignancy as the film progresses. The supporting players are fine across the board, with Gilpin exhibiting the exuberance so familiar to TV viewers as the very direct Georgia. Special mention should be made of Bill Raymond, who excels in a beautifully-written scene with Beatty as an old neighbor who once wronged Murph’s son and apologizes for having done so. Watching the two men play off one another is like seeing a team of old hoofers engaging in a perfectly-choreographed soft-shoe routine.

The understated, resigned mood of “Spring Forward” may strike some viewers as too relaxed for comfort. But if you’re willing to set aside conventional Hollywood expectations and instead savor Gilroy’s rich writing and some sterling acting, you’ll find yourself growing to appreciate Murph and Paul almost as much as they come to like one another. “Spring Forward” is that rarity, an extraordinary film about ordinary people; and while it may be a small movie, it has a big heart and offers some major rewards.