A character-driven, plot-light American indie, The Station Agent has all the ingredients to be a self-consciously arty, over-earnest snoozer. Lord knows enough similar-sounding Sundance award-winners have proved so before. But someone must have slipped something into the soda at the snow-flaky film festival, for the 2003 winner of best screenplay (for first-time writer/director Tom McCarthy) and performance (for Patricia Clarkson) is worth mentioning in the same sentence as American Splendor (see, we just did it). Both launched as festival faves; both honestly evoke the everyday; and both deserve the plaudits. Big time.
It isn't exactly Willow. In fact, star Peter Dinklage is less Warwick Davis than George Clooney, holding centre stage with his screen presence, dry manner and "nice chin" - as smitten librarian Emily observes (Dawson's Creek star Michelle Williams, showing unexpected sensitivity and sensuality). Their relationship, like most things in the film, is enjoyably underplayed, undermining expectations as characters worm out of their pigeonholes.
Bobby Cannavale's loudmouth lad epitomises this. First appearing an annoyance to be as shut out by us as he is by Fin - he runs a fast-food van right outside our hero's train depot - he soon evolves into a rounded, affectionate and amusing character. "She's got that sexy, smart, older-woman thing going on," he unashamedly observes of Patricia Clarkson, who caps the cast with a brilliant performance, by turns hilarious (when she nearly runs over Fin) and heartbreaking (with her scarred past). Underpinning it all is McCarthy's witty, perceptive script. Despite a background in theatre, the writer/director doesn't drone on, instead revelling in awkward exchanges and potent silences. He's also got his visual style nailed down tight, filming in unfussy set-ups that allows the acting, not the technique, to hog the limelight.
Not that The Station Agent is perfect, a touch of predictable melodrama sending the final third slighty skewiff as McCarthy unnecessarily opts to up the ante. As the opening hour shows, this is a movie that doesn't need plot devices or cranked-up machinations, the characters proving so likeable that you're happy to simply hang out with them, contentedly watching them eat, drink, talk and laugh. It's during these moments that the movie is at its most original, affecting and real, effortlessly entertaining us even as it gently challenges our prejudices.
Off-kilter without being irritating, slim without being slight, Tom McCarthy's assured directorial debut is rich, warm and well-acted. Short, but very sweet.