In the Depths of 'Winter'

For widower Jim (Anthony LaPaglia), change comes in the form of Molly (Allison Janney).
For widower Jim (Anthony LaPaglia), change comes in the form of Molly (Allison Janney). (By Larry Riley)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005

MOMENTS OF SAD stillness pervade "Winter Solstice," a movie characterized best not by what happens in it but by what happens just under its surface. It's a movie whose drama -- and there's actually plenty of it, despite a superficial somnolence -- emerges slowly from beneath a random gesture here and there: the way a character might take a long drag on his cigarette, for instance, and stare off into space, or the way another might sit on the sofa and sulk.

Changes, of course, occur in the lives of the characters during the film's action, but they are subtle ones. While the movie makes an overt allusion to seasonal shifts, taking its title, apparently, from the name of the main character, Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia), a widower with two sons running a small lawn and garden business in suburban New Jersey, most of its "weather," such as it is, is internal.

Set five years after the death of Jim's wife in a car accident, the narrative is propelled forward by a couple of quiet and not particularly momentous events: First is the decision of Jim's older son, Gabe (Aaron Stanford), to quit his dead-end job and move to Florida. Second is the arrival of Molly (Allison Janney), a housesitting neighbor of Jim's who strikes up a friendship with the still grieving husband. And that, folks, is about it.

Oh, there are additional frictions, to be sure. Jim's younger son, Pete (Mark Webber), a smart but hearing-impaired high school underachiever, bumps elbows not just with his brother, as all brothers do, but with his father, mostly over Pete's refusal to apply himself academically. And Gabe's sudden determination to drop everything and move to Tampa doesn't quite sit well with his sweet yet somewhat bewildered girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan). Still, it can hardly be said that any of these perennial subjects -- the difficulty of raising two boys, a family coping with the loss of a beloved wife and mother, the breakup of one relationship and the blossoming of a new one -- is what "Winter Solstice" is about.

Rather, as the film's title suggests, with its insinuation that it's always darkest before the dawn, and its belief in the promise of spring, "Winter Solstice's" true theme may lie not in what transpires on screen but in what we hope will happen to these characters after the credits roll.

We hope that Jim and Molly will get together. We hope that Gabe will finally be able to, as he says, get something "started" down south. And we hope, too, that Pete will finally grow up and get his act together.

Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. In life, as in gardening (or so Jim reminds us), maintenance is hard work, and there are no guarantees of happy-ever-after endings. With thoughtful planting of ideas, however, careful pruning of dialogue and great restraint in the waterworks department, first-time writer-director Josh Sternfeld has created a garden on film that opens up its blooms for us, not in the dark of the movie house, but long after we've left the theater.

WINTER SOLSTICE (R, 89 minutes) -- Contains obscenity. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

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