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Winter Solstice offers a quiet look at ordinary lives in a small town in New Jersey. Widower Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) is raising two teenage sons, Gabe (Aaron Stanford) and Pete (Mark Webber). Pete is at a rebellious stage of adolescence, indifferent at school despite the concerned efforts of one of his teachers and his father’s not unreasonable insistence that he finish and get his high school diploma. Gabe is restless, anxious to move on, working extra shifts at his job to accumulate some money to finance a move to Florida. The memory of their mother, killed in an automobile accident five years ago, is a pervasive presence for the whole family.
Jim, who has his own landscaping business, seems to have no interest in starting a new relationship, until he chances to meet a new neighbor, Molly (Allison Janney). Even then the thawing of the ice is a glacially slow process.
First time writer/director Josh Sternfeld has done a great deal right with his film. He tells the story in a series of events and conversations that feel natural and unforced. As far as he takes them, the characters all ring true, as do the relationships among them. The camera is nonintrusive and thoughtfully placed; the scenes flow with accomplished continuity and a clear narrative flow.
What’s missing is any real drama–there’s no protagonist/antagonist conflict here and there’s little fresh in the observations of mourning and the perennial parent/child tug-of-war. Sternfeld has a good ear for the way these folks talk, but they are a notably inarticulate bunch.
La Paglia (Lantana) seems to be patenting the role of the reticent guy, macho on the outside, sensitive within, roiling emotions kept under the surface, only expressed in occasional outbursts of temper. It’s very like the personality of his TV role as senior agent Jack Malone (Without a Trace), without the suit and tie. Janney (The Hours) is a charmer with an ingratiating smile, but the script never develops her character with any depth or complexity.
Sternfeld is obviously a young talent to watch. With a natural bent for moviemaking, experience should help fulfill the promise he shows in Winter Solstice.