By Tim Merrill | October 2, 2003

“The Station Agent” is about a young man who cannot get through a single day without being gawked at, laughed at, talked about, even photographed. The reason? Fin McBride is a dwarf, just over four feet tall. His only interest in life is trains, nothing else, and human contact is kept to an absolute minimum. As played by Peter Dinklage, Fin is a fascinating character to watch just by virtue of his recessive nature; we are drawn, along with everyone else in the movie, toward him – because he gives absolutely nothing.

Fin, who works at a model train store, is sent in a new direction upon the owner’s death. He has been left a tiny, ramshackle train depot in rural New Jersey, and having nothing else to do he heads there to live full-time. But no sooner has he arrived than he is nearly run off the road by a scattered local artist, Olivia (the wonderful, ubiquitous Patricia Clarkson). But she’s not the only intruder; an insistently social coffee and hot-dog vendor, Joe (Bobby Cannavale) won’t leave Fin alone for a single minute, as customers are scarce and it’s not in Joe’s nature to ever stop talking. Between Olivia and Joe, Fin is the only halfway normal one around. The suspense is waiting to see when Fin will finally blow his stack and get the hell out of town.

Essentially a three-character chamber piece, “The Station Agent” gets by for much of its fleet running time with almost no dramatic conflict, just finely observed and often very funny interactions between these three fragile souls. Cannavale provides rich comic relief, which Clarkson nicely balances with her portrayal of grieving, damaged but still hopeful Olivia. Dinklage never goes for easy sympathy and thus receives none; what he earns is respect for his character’s refusal to compromise his values just to make others feel better about themselves. In this way, everyone benefits.

Tom McCarthy’s film is never more than small, and that’s how it should be. It is about treasuring life – sometimes even cheating death – and it manages to warm hearts in its own uncompromising way, rarely cheating and never belittling.

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