It’s rare to find an intimate domestic drama nowadays that doesn’t plunge into soap operatic terrain; even big-screen examples are apt to degenerate into something akin to the WB “Evergreen” formula. That’s why it’s refreshing to encounter so natural and unforced a sample of the genre as “Winter Solstice,” from neophyte writer-director Josh Sternfeld. Many independent films aim for the sort of disarming honesty this picture exhibits, but few achieve it. The little gem is a tale of the Winters family which, as the title implies, gradually emerges from the chill of loss into the springlike warmth of rediscovered mutual affection when the father and his two teenaged sons finally begin to deal with the pain caused by the death of their wife and mother five years before. What’s remarkable about the picture is that it declines to indulge what must have been a strong inclination to infuse the story with melodrama and sentiment, opting instead for a gentle approach that some may dismiss as restrained and sluggish but is actually deeply affecting.
Anthony LaPaglia employs his combination of burly physicality and quiet intensity beautifully in playing Jim Winters, a dedicated New Jersey landscaper still grieving over his wife’s death in a car crash. Jim lives with his two sons in a rambling suburban house; the older, Gabe (Aaron Stanford), has a sweet local girlfriend, Stacey (Michelle Monaghan), but is nonetheless working overtime to save money in order to fulfill his secret plan to leave town, while the younger, Pete (Mark Webber), who’s afflicted with a hearing disability resulting from the accident that killed his mother, is struggling at school and engaging in increasingly troubled conduct.
Not much happens in “Winter Solstice,” at least not in the conventional sense. Gabe’s announcement of his imminent departure to room with an old pal in Florida leads to a breakup with Stacey, which she handles straightforwardly and without tears, and an outburst from Jim. Pete’s interest in his summer school class is reawakened by a new teacher (Ron Livingston). And Jim comes haltingly out of his shell by establishing a connection with Molly (Allison Janney), a warm-hearted woman who’s house-sitting for a neighbor. There are moments when the dramatic temperature rises, as when Jim explodes at Gabe for leaving or at both boys for ignoring a dinner date at Molly’s. But for the most part the film observes the characters rather than putting them through overwrought paces. The result may bore people looking for something more conventionally exciting, but its genuineness will be a soothing relief to those tired of the usual diet of cinematic excess. The Winters men are real people rather than literary constructs; they fuss and irritate one another occasionally, and they have their demons, but they don’t make big scenes or talk in the cute, overly clever way screenwriters usually have them do. And they’re splendidly played: LaPaglia’s calm but compelling presence anchors everything–even his inevitable “finally letting go” monologue has a wondrous sense of conviction, but he’s matched in the persuasive, controlled performances of Stanford and Webber. The secondary characters are painted with a refreshing lack of italics, too. Monaghan and Janney are both gently radiant, and even Livingston, as the cooly competent teacher, and Brendan Sexton III, as Pete’s more extroverted buddy, make their points without overdoing things. The almost perfectly-pitched quality of the acting is a testimony to Sternfeld’s skill and sensitivity as director as well as author, and he’s also assembled a crew–production designer Jody Asnes, costumer Paola Weintraub, set decorator Lisa Kent–able to fashion an atmosphere that’s realistic without being flashy, captured with equally unobtrusive rightness by cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian. The guitar-based score by John Levanthal supports the mood without overwhelming it, and Plummy Tucker’s editing maintains a pace that allows the story to breathe without either rushing or lingering overmuch.
At times, it’s true, “Winter Solstice” does seem ready to slip into the sort of exaggeration it takes such pains to avoid. The title, for instance, is a mite too clever for comfort–a literary affectation of sorts–and the emphasis on the spring flowers in Jim’s business as the symbol of the family’s renewal recurs too often. But the missteps are remarkably few. This is an extraordinary film about ordinary people, a lovely chamber-music piece in an era dominated by bombastic symphonic-scaled movies.