Winter Solstice

2005, Movie, R, 92 mins

Review

WINTER SOLSTICE
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New York University graduate film-school alumnus Josh Sternfeld's morose first feature (which is unrelated to the identically titled book by U.K. novelist Rosamunde Pilcher) revolves around the emotional agonies of a widowed suburban landscaper and his two unhappy sons. Five years after his wife's death, suburban New Jersey landscaper Jim Winters (executive producer Anthony LaPaglia) is stuck in a funk that shows no signs of abating. But as the weather starts to warm and business heats up, Jim meets Molly (Allison Janney), who's house-sitting for friends down the street and weathering her own quiet midlife crisis. Unfortunately, Jim isn't in the best position to make a fresh emotional start: His smart but sullen younger son, Pete (Mark Webber), is failing classes and making defiant noises about dropping out of high school. And restless, slightly older Gabe (Aaron Stanford), who's been taking on double shifts at the supermarket to finance his escape to Florida, waited until the last minute to reveal his plans. Gabe's secrecy was partly motivated by dread over having to break the news to his sweetheart, Stacey (Michelle Monaghan), but mostly by the fear of an eruption of paternal bluster that would poison his last months at home. Spring gives way to summer and Jim's business swings into high gear. Pete attends remedial classes and develops a certain respect for his summer-school teacher (Ron Livingston), and Jim responds cautiously to Molly's gentle overtures. The film's strength is its uniformly fine performances: The thuggishly handsome LaPaglia has thickened into a surprisingly subtle character actor, Janney's cautiously optimistic Molly is a winning combination of dry wit and calm resolve, and Stafford and Webber bring scruffy conviction and a real sense of sibling give-and-take. But Sternfeld's script, developed at the Sundance screenwriters' lab, is spare to the point of stinginess; individual scenes play beautifully without adding up to anything, stranding the actors in an emotional vacuum that drains the life from their performances. And on top of it all, the film is saddled with a pretentious title that apparently struck someone as a screamingly clever triple play on the family name, the gardening connection to natural cycles and the idea that Jim and his boys are emerging from an emotional long, dark night. But it's not: The name is Winters and the story takes place in the spring and summer and "solstice" is not a synonym for tiresome angst. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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