Writer/director Josh Sternfeld has had “Winter Solstice” on his mind for many years and bits and pieces of the story probably interlocked as he was making “Balloons, Streamers” and “Colin’s Date” years ago. The various well-crafted shots by Harlan Bosmajian, from an empty street with shards of sunlight beaming down, to a nearly empty classroom housing students who are simply there, to the local Dairy Queen hangout, has Sternfeld’s own touch because as he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with these characters, what kind of theme he wanted to wrap the film around, there was also these shots which defined everything for him. Much as a painter thinks of the picture they want to create, Sternfeld thinks in terms of the camera and every instance of lighting, every location must be vindication for all this time that he’s held all of it in his mind. The ideas were there, but as with any movie, it needs time and he’s taken lots of that.
The opportunity to work with actors who can look like anyone is also of great importance in terms of the grieving male family who hasn’t quite gotten over their matriarch’s death. Anthony LaPaglia has got a look that has served him well all these years, along with the blessed talent to rummage through a variety of actors as his characters have required. Pick any movie featuring LaPaglia and you’ll find something within him that’s always worth watching. His two extremes are easy to find. On the high broad comedy end, there’s Simon Moon, Daphne’s brother on “Frasier”. And this is his low, quietly dramatic end, showing that there’s nothing he can’t do. When it comes to actors like him, it’s most often the movie that fails, the writer and director unable to do what they had hoped to do due to lack of skill or time or money or even a slight chance. Sternfeld has not failed with LaPaglia and as Jim Winters, the head of this unraveling family, he manages to provoke a lot of emotion without making us feel cheap for feeling it. In fact, it’s a credit to Sternfeld as well that each scene is carefully composed. He doesn’t want to step out of the lines he’s set for himself. Those lines also include Allison Janney who does what comedic relief usually should do in a movie but isn’t entirely obvious. Janney is Molly Ripkin, a new neighbor housesitting for friends of hers for three months. A lot of dramas have the past have some sort of comedic relief, but go so far out of their way to make it noticeable in the belief that an audience has to breathe, needs to breathe in order to absorb the heaviness of what they’re experiencing. Janney is a calming presence, with little comedy quirks that emit a small chuckle, but never goes overboard as if to take us out of the movie. These characters have enough trouble and someone making outrageous comedy would look way too out of place in days of weariness. It’s enough that we are there along with them.
There is no word wasted in “Winter Solstice” either. No throwaway lines can be found and even in the briefest of scenes, such as where Jim has a parent/teacher conference (on a Friday night no less! Some hopping town!) with his son Pete’s (Mark Webber) teacher, it contributes to everything that this family is going through. With the conference, it shows the detachment Jim has from his sons. He loves his landscaping business because it gives him the chance to build something, grow a garden full of beauty, but he’s not entirely able to rebuild his relationships with his sons, even to the point where his other son, Gabe (Aaron Stanford) plans to move to Tampa to find a life of his own, beginning at his friend’s house. He finds nothing in this town that could contain him and he just wants what he wants. In fact, this is a town of almost futile existence. Everything’s here if you want it and if you leave and come back, it’ll still be the same way. You could almost imagine this area having the same town council for years simply because it’s how it’s been. The school where Pete spends his time slogging through a history class in the summer—led by the sadly hopeful Mr. Bricker (Ron Livingston) who sees more potential in Pete than he does—is simply there. Education is key like in any other school but it feels like this one simply churns them out. In fact, Bricker is that kind of teacher who probably has the job simply because it’s what he’s always done. Either reading a book or a newspaper, he’s simply there. And he always will be.
“Winter Solstice” thrives solely on how much understatement you can actually handle in a movie. In fact, Michelle Monaghan’s performance as Gabe’s girlfriend thrives greatly on that. A look here, a glance there, and she does well with what she has. Houses are nice in this New Jersey neighborhood and certainly with how sparse it looks, people don’t have a problem living in them. Emotions make a much bigger house in which to navigate and everyone here, all the cinematography and all the clips of dialogue make for a drama which sits on you for a time after you’ve watched it. It’s the cinematography that does that the first time on reflection, and then it begins again.