Winter Solstice

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Winter Solstice
Winter Solstice
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) has spent the last five years grieving the loss of his wife and raising his two grown sons, Gabe (Aaron Stafford) and Pete (Mark Webber). This status quo life is about to change for two reasons: Gabe announces that he is leaving for Florida and an attractive new neighbor moves in down the street. The changes will prove to be a tonic for the lonely father in “Winter Solstice”

Novice writer/director Josh Sternfeld makes a strong start his first time off the block with his quiet, subtle family drama about fear and hope. The fear that envelops Jim comes from the terrible car accident that took the life of his wife and both physically and emotionally scarred youngest son Pete. Since then, he has agonized over raising his sons alone and running his small landscaping business. Things get more anxious for Jim when Gabe announces his imminent departure and Pete uncaringly neglects his schoolwork and is in danger of not graduating high school.

Just when things look darkest for Jim, a breath of fresh air arrives in the form of Molly Ripkin (Allison Janney), a paralegal who needed to get away from her job, for a while. She is house sitting for friends and, though she doesn’t know a soul in town, is outgoing and seems a genuinely nice lady. After she borrows a hand truck from Jim to help her move in, she returns his favor and invites him and his sons to dinner. The boys stand up their dad and Jim, reluctantly, goes to Molly’s alone and, despite himself, has a wonderful time. The evening becomes the catalyst for change in the lonely man and, what used to be considered a burden, like Gabe’s leaving, suddenly isn’t so onerous anymore.

Scripter Sternfeld comes up with a compelling, thoughtful slice of life story where ordinary, rather than extraordinary, problems arise in the Winters household. The problematic Pete; the just-want-to-get-away Gabe; Gabe’s pretty, supportive girlfriend, Stacey (Michelle Monaghan), who he dumps; Pete’s sympathetic high school teacher, Mr. Bricker (Ron Livingston), who gets through to the boy; and warm and caring Molly. These are the players in this family drama that doesn’t force itself upon you. Instead, Sternfeld crafts his story in a subtle, careful way that allows his players to infuse life into their characters brings the viewer into the picture as an observer of a family in crisis. That the crises confronted are not of the earth-shattering variety makes “Winter Solstice” all the more appealing. The Winters men experience the kind of problems and changes many of us may face in life.

The performances are, across the board, solid, led by veteran Anthony LaPaglia in a sensitive, often moving performance of a man at the brink of despair, then hope. The casting of Stanford and Webber as the Winters boys could not have been better. The young actors don’t just look like brothers, they act like brothers. Allison Janney gives an effective, low-key performance that is a perfect emotional foil to the angst that has consumed Jim for so long. Molly, though not without her own problems, proves a balm for hard-working Jim. Ron Livingston, in a small role, gives dimension to his dedicated teacher, Mr. Bicker. Michelle Monaghan is so nice, pretty and caring as Stacey, you wonder what’s going through Gabe’s head for wanting to leave without her. Even tiny, throwaway roles, like Pete’s buddy, Robbie (Brendan Sexton), are well handled. This is a small, but extremely effective, ensemble film.

Tech’s are first rate with production design by Jody Asnes capturing the look and feel of small town America. Cinematography by Harlan Bosmajian is crisply done and helps bring an intimacy with the Winters to the screen.

Winter Solstice” is such a sure handed, well-paced and believable film drama that it belies Josh Sternfeld’s novice filmmaking status. It makes me look forward to his sophomore work. I give it a B+.

'As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.  In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.'

                        Chauncey Gardiner, "Being There"

A widowed Garden State landscaper and his two sons live their lives under a long term cloud of grief, but a new neighbor, the housesitting Molly Ripkin (Allison Janney, TV's "The West Wing"), is the ray of light that gives Jim Winters his own "Winter Solstice."

With his first film, writer/director Josh Sternfeld displays a natural filmmaking ability that belies his inexperience.  This mature, assured piece of work relays as much information by what isn't said as by what is.  Graced with fine, restrained performances from a terrific ensemble cast, "Winter Solstice" marks the arrival of a notable new American talent.

After establishing the all male Winters household, Sternfeld branches out to their individual lives.  Dad Jim (Anthony LaPaglia, "Lantana") tends to the lawns of McMansions in a gated community and fends off blind dates offered by well meaning clients.  Youngest son Pete (Mark Webber, "Boiler Room," "Hollywood Ending") falls afoul of one of his high school teachers once again and older brother Gabe (Aaron Stanford, "Tadpole," "Hollywood Ending") angles for extra shifts prepping produce.  Pete's a simmering powder keg, clearly attached somehow to his mother's death, who wastes his time hanging around basketball courts and parking lots. Gabe enjoys a great relationship with girlfriend Stacey (Michelle Monaghan, "The Bourne Supremacy"), but the extra money he's making is for a planned escape to Florida - without her.  Jim's just trying to get Pete through high school and has no idea Gabe intends to leave.

So often, new writer/directors are overwhelmed by two roles and one suffers, but Sternfeld is equally strong at both.  The story has a strong, quiet build with beautiful, bittersweet undercurrents, such as the obvious pleasure Jim takes in Stacey's presence in the household. Hints are dropped about the family's tragedy ('He was not left back.  He was out for some time.' Jim defensively tells Pete's teacher), which isn't relayed until just before the final act in a subtle, soulful unburdening.

In lesser hands, the repeated use of montage (set to a terrific acoustic guitar score by John Leventhal) would drip with cliche but Sternfeld incorporates them beautifully, painting in the backgrounds of life in a small, sleepy town like the watercolors that accompany his opening credits.  The film has a beautiful look, light and shadow perfectly balanced in both interiors and exteriors (cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian ("Lovely & Amazing") used Vilmos Sigmond's technique of pre-flashing the negative so that the film would look more natural, less slickly commercial).

LaPaglia gives an understated performance, his grief evident in the set of his shoulders. Even so, he runs the gamut of emotions, from frustration with his son's lack of consideration ('I don't ask for much') to protective, caring parenting (gently removing gravel from Pete's eye without asking how it got there).  The actor displays anger in two wildly different scenes, first with fury, later very humorously, without going out of the film's tonal boundary. Stanford is fine, awkward with his feelings without smothering them.  He has the easy chemistry of a long term understanding with the lovely Monaghan, looking like a girl next-door version of Liv Tyler.  Webber gets the puffed up bravado of a teenager keeping up appearances, flinching when his father mentions his hearing aid, exaggerating his inconvenience to buddy Robbie (Brendan Sexton III, "Session 9") when he has to interact with Molly in dad's absence.  Janney flits around the perimeter, a middle aged woman who still hopes to find happiness after an unexceptional life.  Ron Livingston ("The Cooler," "Office Space") makes the most of a few brief scenes as Pete's unconventional and astute summer school teacher, as does Ebon Moss-Bachrach ("Mona Lisa Smile") in a lesser role as Gabe's friendly boss, a contemporary contented with what Gabe is not.

"Winter Solstice" is a small, simple gem.  Like moonstone, it has a calming and healing effect.


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