Rated R, 89 min. Directed by Josh Sternfeld. Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Aaron Stanford, Mark Webber, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Michelle Monaghan, Brendan Sexton III, Ebon Moss-Bachrach.
Neither a change of seasons nor truly wonderful performances can breathe life into the dismally enervated Winter Solstice. It’s a film without air, a lab experiment in a bell jar cut off from human reality and circumstance. As such, the drama is not without merit – most of it going to the terrific performances by the entire cast. (Even Livingston and Monaghan – who looks like a poor man’s Liv Tyler – in secondary roles make strong impressions.) The first sign of trouble appears as the opening credits announce Winter Solstice as a "Josh Sternfeld Film." That kind of billing for an unknown writer-director inflates expectations, especially when the film’s stars, LaPaglia and Janney, are so much more celebrated than the guy with the billboarded credits. LaPaglia plays Jim Winters, the patriarch of the all-male Winters enclave. Since his wife’s death prior to the start of the film, Jim has lived with his two young-adult sons Gabe (Stanford) and Pete (Webber). Pete goes to high school and is suffering from a bad case of teeneragerhood: His diffident attitude has him in and out of the principal’s office, and he’s perpetually sullen no matter where he is. Older brother Gabe is out of school, has a pretty girlfriend (Monaghan), and works a dead-end job. His desire to "get something started" prompts him to announce near the start of the drama that he plans to pack up and move to Florida shortly and work on a boat. This upsets his arborist father, who knows his sons’ problems stem from who they are, not where they are – but that’s not something this middle-aged man can explain to kids. Instead, there’s a dearth of dialogue in Winter Solstice. All three Winters men are clearly unhappy, but each is unable to help himself or comfort the others. Then Molly (Janney) moves into the neighborhood and creates a few fissures in the Winters household, and a new teacher (Livingston) forces Pete to move to the front row of the classroom from the back. It’s not much, but it’s enough to create the sense of possibility that the long Winters’ hibernation may be nearing its end. LaPaglia is brilliant as the story’s soft-spoken hull, but never for a minute do we believe he owns a nursery: The footprints of this deadened character would turn grass brown wherever he walked. The character is unbelievable as a gardener and nurturer. To a lesser degree, the same could be said for the other characters, who all exude that sense of being an inconclusive lab experiment rather than flesh-and-blood human beings. Even though we’re observing this family’s solstice – the point at which they are the furthest away from each other – the chill in the air is deadening for the viewer.
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