Passing time on the railroad of life

Sometimes a film comes along that strongly asserts its own identity in a way that cannot be argued with. There is no hesitation, no trepidation as each moment unfolds. Whether as an invitation or a challenge, our attention is firmly requested. The Station Agent is one of those films.

Finn is a dwarf. He’s also very much into trains - perhaps being a form of escapism he can easily deal with. So, he works at a model train store, and would probably be willing to do so the rest of his life, except toward the start of this film, the owner dies. The shop is to be closed up, and Finn finds himself inheriting, quite surprisingly, an abandoned small town train station.

So Finn shows up one day and moves in to the place as his new home. We don’t see him tidying his affairs or moving out beforehand. Such scenes are simply unimportant here, and their omission also tells us that his life was not so tied down that picking up to go was all that hard.

He meets some of the locals, but meets their small-town friendliness with disinterest. We can surmise that it is years of poor and patronizing treatment that have led to Finn's antisocial nature. So when Joe, the local coffee truck guy, parks every morning across the gravelled road from the station, Finn is generally polite in declining conversation, but firm. Why this fairly barren spot could be considered a good place to sell coffee is one of the movie's biggest mysteries.

Likewise with Olivia, the older local artist, living on her own. She nearly runs over Finn two separate times in her SUV, and is quite apologetic - being an artist apparently implies a strong capacity for distraction behind the wheel.

Joe's earnest manner and Olivia's need to connect do not exactly win over Finn, but somehow they get enough under his skin to form an unlikely friendship.

Also in the story are a young librarian, her boyfriend, and a young girl who is a ball of curiosity and hot- and cold-running shyness.

There are no great external conflicts here - they are all buried within the characters, each intrinsic in some way to their own nature. They struggle internally, and their emotions are so resonant that it's impossible not to pull for them. Finn himself hasn't so much struggled as simmered for so long that he doesn't take action for himself, but only when he finally sees how he can be a force for someone else's life.

Finn is played by Peter Dinklage, who you've possibly seen before - I recognize him from Living in Oblivion. Olivia is strongly embodied by the versatile Patricia Clarkson. And Bobby Cannavale basically is Joe. The parts were written by writer/director Thomas McCarthy for these actors, and it shows. What they are doing on screen is not so much acting as being their characters, which does marvellous things for the audience, like forgetting the need for any suspension of disbelief.

Bobby Cannavale's script is flawless (well, there's that thing about selling coffee in the middle of nowhere). Every little step breaking down, or building back up, Finn's defenses simply rings true. Every event is plausible, within character, and manages to fit into a very loose story structure. There is humor here, most of it from the conflict between the wry, cynical point of view, and a more positive look on the world. Shot a different way, this might have come across as a comedy, but the right choice was made because the characters are too true, their voices ready to be heard.

Between the script and the acting, it's nearly inevitable to want things to work out for these folk, which is why the film has been picked up by Miramax. Audiences will relate deeply to each character's feelings. It's too early to know how the film will do - this one may prove difficult to market correctly - but I know it will be well received by the audience it does find.

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