Three socially isolated characters patch together an understated bond in "The Station Agent," a well-acted and -crafted character piece that's a bit too calculated and cutesy for its own good. Although the emotional undercurrents are clear and strong enough to generate the sort of audience engagement that will ensure critical attention and acceptance by specialized auds, Miramax's vaunted marketing skills will be tested in the attempt to turn this very small picture into anything more than a modest success theatrically. Overseas, TV would seem like the most natural market.

Three socially isolated characters patch together an understated bond in “The Station Agent,” a well-acted and -crafted character piece that’s a bit too calculated and cutesy for its own good. Although the emotional undercurrents are clear and strong enough to generate the sort of audience engagement that will ensure critical attention and acceptance by specialized auds, Miramax’s vaunted marketing skills will be tested in the attempt to turn this very small picture into anything more than a modest success theatrically. Overseas, TV would seem like the most natural market.

The central figure of New York actor Tom McCarthy’s first feature is Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage), a 4-foot-5-inch dwarf with a passion for trains. After his fellow co-owner of a model train store dies, Fin, who appears to be in his early 30s, finds he’s inherited an abandoned train depot in Newfoundland, N.J., where he quickly takes up residence.

A small white building in a moderate state of disrepair, the station is located in a verdant no-man’s land, which perfectly suits the anti-social Fin. Even with his late partner, Fin exchanged only the bare minimum of words, and it’s evident Fin’s eagerness to be left alone stems from his short stature having always caused him to attract an inordinate amount of unwanted attention.

But even in the middle of nowhere, Fin’s dream of solitude is threatened. First, a young guy named Joe (Bobby Cannavale) who daily parks his hot-dog truck next to the depot is an impossibly chatty type who keeps approaching Fin like an eager puppy no matter how often he’s rebuffed. Second, a woman, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who nearly ran over Fin with her SUV, not once but twice, shows up at night bearing a bottle of booze by way of an apology.

Fin is so taciturn he responds to the others with only marginal politeness; this is the kind of picture in which one of the major turning points occurs when Fin actually initiates a conversation. Left to his own devices, Fin enjoys walking the railroad right-of-way and sitting by a bridge timing the trains’ arrivals. But his extreme indifference to his acquaintances’ overtures doesn’t deter them, and Olivia and Joe gradually insinuate themselves into the little man’s life.

In the manner of a traditionally wrought theater piece, the inner pain of the two other characters is attentively laid bare. Olivia is still tormented by the accidental death of her son two years earlier, an event that led to the disintegration of her marriage. She now lives alone in her lovely waterfront home, working on undistinguished paintings. Joe, for his part, is a gregarious soul whose manning the food truck and resultant isolation is forced by his father’s serious illness.

Fortunately, the screenplay doesn’t have the characters explicitly articulate their need for each other; McCarthy’s script carpentry is well-designed, intelligent and discreet. Fin’s slow emergence from his thick shell, furthered by his contact with the local hottie librarian (Michelle Williams) and a girl (Raven Goodwin) who talks him into addressing her school class about the history of trains, is handled in a nicely muted manner.

The proceedings are given a cloyingly cute dimension far in excess of the way they are dramatized or acted by the musical score, which never properly fits what’s happening onscreen and draws undue attention to itself. Surprisingly, the composer is Stephen Trask, who wrote the terrific music and lyrics to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Otherwise, “The Station Agent” is very well made, with fine lensing, tight editing and an acute sense of place all helping McCarthy assert himself as a new director of talent.

Performances are excellent, led by Dinklage, whose tough-as-a-nut characterization of Fin inspires constant interest in the viewer, just as the character himself does in those around him. Clarkson is once again outstanding, as she layers elements of sensitivity, emotional outreach and humor with deep levels of despair and pain. Cannavale is ultimately winning as the kind of verbal diarrhetic you don’t want to find in the next seat just as you’re hoping to settle in with a good book on a plane or train, and Williams has some sweet moments as the desirable femme who confides in Fin.

The Station Agent

Production

A Miramax release (in North America) of a SenArt Films production in association with Next Wednesday. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced by Mary Jane Skalski, Robert May, Kathryn Tucker. Co-producer, Joshua Zeman. Directed, written by Tom McCarthy.

Crew

Camera (color), Oliver Bokelberg; editor, Tom McArdle; music, Stephen Trask; music supervisors, Mary Ramos, Michelle Kuznetsky; production designer, John Paino; art director, Len X. Clayton; set decorator, Erin Ohanneson; costume designer, Jeanne Dupont; sound (Dolby Digital), Damian Canelos; sound supervisor, Tom Efinger; sound designer, Paul Hsu; associate producer, Richard Cohan; casting, Hopkins, Smith and Barden. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition), Jan. 21, 2003. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Finbar McBride - Peter Dinklage Olivia Harris - Patricia Clarkson Joe Oramas - Bobby Cannavale Cleo - Raven Goodwin Henry Styles - Paul Benjamin Emily - Michelle Williams
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