Heard the one about the lonely dwarf, the grieving artist, and the happy-go-lucky coffee vendor? Probably not a very promising joke set-up, unless it was for a joke on The Simpsons or South Park about "indie" movies.
The Station Agent -- a modest debut film from writer-director Thomas McCarthy whose acting credits include Meet the Parents, The Guru, and lots of network television -- is that movie. It stars a cast of actors familiar from lots of other American independent films (Parker Posey was booked, apparently). It was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival. Its "quirky" scenario takes a Jules & Jim-type triangle and plays it out with Fellini-esque outsiders. Visually, it's sort of dull and very basic.
In other words, it's exactly the kind of American movie that tends to get overrated by people desperate to see recognizable humans on the big screen instead of toy advertisements. If you're at all cynical about post-Pulp Fiction, post-Sundance, American independent film (and there's plenty of reason to be), it's just the sort of film you might dread. And yet it works.
The film stars Peter Dinklage as Fin McBride, a dwarf who works at the Golden Spike, a Hoboken model-train shop, until the owner dies of a heart attack. Fin learns that his friend and fellow train enthusiast has left him a piece of land in rural New Jersey -- an abandoned one-room shack that once served as a train station.
Fin goes to examine his inheritance and moves in, no explanation given. It's also a mystery why a coffee vendor decides to park his truck next to the out-of-service station every day instead of somewhere with foot traffic, but apparently McCarthy can't think of a better way to have Fin meet Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a boisterous young Cuban-American commuting from Manhattan to tend the truck for his ailing father. The triangle is completed by Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a skittish artist on the run from a wealthy husband and family tragedy back in Princeton, who accidentally runs Fin off the road on her way to pick up her morning coffee from Joe.
These are three lost souls of a sort. Fin has come to live in solitude, studiously avoiding human contact. The film doesn't make a big deal out of it, but it suggests that a life of being gawked at in convenience stores and harassed by inconsiderate passersby ("Hey, where's Snow White?" one teenager yells) has hardened Fin to most of the world. He just wants to study trains, walk the tracks, and be left alone.
Olivia is mourning the sudden death of a young son and avoiding her insistent ex-husband, who may be getting on with his life a bit too easily. And gregarious Joe is just lonely working his pop's coffee stand and desperate for company. The film even adds a couple of more lonely souls on the margins. There's Dawson's Creek's Michelle Williams as a comely young librarian who's been knocked up by a local macho creep and seeks sympathy from Fin. And best of all is Raven Goodwin (the adopted daughter in last year's Lovely & Amazing and a startlingly self-possessed young actress) as a curious young girl who befriends Fin. ("What grade are you in?" she innocently asks.)
The Station Agent is simply about how these unlikely people come together in unlikely ways and form a friendship that eventually allows the kind of comfortable silence the film rather abruptly ends with. It's not heavily plot-driven, and, truthfully, McCarthy doesn't seem to know quite what to do with these characters once he's sketched them and brought them together. But, with no particular place to go, he at least has the good sense to get out of the way and let his actors work.
Dinklage, who made a memorable appearance in the quintessential '90s indie Living in Oblivion and a brief turn recently in Elf, appears in almost every scene and carries the movie with aplomb, conveying so much intelligence and mystery as reticent, brooding Fin that his physical stature begins to seem beside the point. Clarkson, an increasingly ubiquitous figure in left-of-center American movies (see also Pieces of April, All the Real Girls, and Far From Heaven), gives a typically sharp performance. And veteran TV actor Cannavale makes an immensely likable goof, as gung-ho in pursuit of companionship as Fin is for solitude. He calls his new friend "dude" and dives into Fin's passion for trains with an honest zeal that wins both Fin and the audience over.
To say that The Station Agent is about real people whom you'll enjoy spending time with is an indie cliche that's rarely true. But here's an exception.