For his debut feature Winter Solstice, writer-director Josh Sternfeld crafted something that's increasingly rare: a stringently subtextual drama. Sternfeld invites the audience to ask what his characters are thinking, to fill in the emotional blanks. Little gestures are fraught with portent, relationships are inarticulately strained, issues fester unresolved. And when they finally arrive, the epiphanies are small ones.
Anthony LaPaglia (TV's Without a Trace) stars as Jim Winters, a New Jersey widower trying to raise two young men: his sons Gabe (Aaron Stanford of X2) and Pete (Mark Webber of Broken Flowers). Jim owns a small landscape gardening business and tries to hold his frayed family together. Though Gabe is his father's son, with impressive knowledge of gardening, he chafes in what he sees as the confines of his family and his sleepy town. Since missing school after his mother's death, Pete has lost all academic motivation, spelling a passive-agressive summer-school tour-of-duty (with observant history teacher Ron Livingston).
None of the men have recovered from the loss of their matriarch, and none of them will overcome his male pride to admit he needs help. In an early scene, a father and son playing hoops catch Jim's sad gaze before the father—a client and friend—attempts setting Jim up on a date. Jim begs off, but the arrival of a housesitter named Molly (Alison Janney of The West Wing) down the street offers Jim romantic possibility. She's taking her own tentative steps to start her life over, and she wouldn't mind if Jim joined her. Gabe's announcement (early in the film) that he's leaving for the warmer climes of Florida casts a pall over everyone, including Gabe's girlfriend Stacey (Michelle Monaghan of Mission: Impossible III).
The uneasy connections between the characters contribute to a wonderful dry humor, as in a funny-awkward scene of Molly trying to ingratiate herself with the Winters family when only an uninterested Pete is around. Endearingly, Sternfeld sets a gentle tone with watercolor credits, then sets off slowly, refusing to ignore the everyday chores in life: washing dishes, hooking up a propane tank, and attending a parent-teacher conference.
Incidental details, like Pete's hearing aid, make the story more believable, while Sternfeld embeds quiet metaphors, like gardening as parenting (Jim talks of "the maintenance part of it...because gardens fall apart very quickly. You really have to take care of them"), and even Genghis Khan as the late Mrs. Winters, the absent leader who has left her troops adrift and directionless. Winter Solstice details men who want to say more than they're saying, but don't know how. When they finally do, in successive third-act scenes, Sternfeld has his humble climax.
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