People and porcupines, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously wrote, are very much alike: They want to stay close for warmth and companionship but they also maintain a certain distance to avoid pricking one another. The characters in "The Station Agent," a quite wonderful new comic drama, fit that description exactly.
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, an experienced actor and stage director making his behind-the-camera debut, "The Station Agent" did well at Sundance, taking the audience award, the Waldo Salt screenwriting award and a share of co-star Patricia Clarkson's special prize for outstanding acting. But even that doesn't say enough about the film.
For this sophisticated entertainment, made with a gift for character, is more than a Park City prizewinner. Its charming story of the delicate intersection of three highly individual lives is the kind of completely personal yet universal film that the festival and the entire independent movement came into being to celebrate. And it does it all in 88 deft and funny minutes.
Typical of "Station Agent's" strength is that it makes its optimistic points about community, about the ways we're drawn to each other almost in spite of ourselves, with people who sound in the abstract unlikely to come alive, let alone come together.
But filmmaker McCarthy knew what he was doing. Having met his principals through his Manhattan stage experience, he wrote each part with a specific actor in mind, using his sense of what they could accomplish to create an elaborate tissue of playful interactions.
First among equals is Peter Dinklage, who brings charisma and contained emotion to the role of Fin McBride, a 4-foot, 5-inch loner whose great passion and escape in life is trains. Fin works in a hobby shop for model train buffs by day and spends his nights meeting with fellow enthusiasts and watching films they've taken of, yes, trains.
This zeal notwithstanding, Fin is not an outwardly passionate man. He's a figure of formidable dignity not despite but because of his size. After having endured every joke, every look of disbelief, every nudging reference to "Fantasy Island," Fin has made himself as solitary as any cloistered monk, creating a buffer that's given him the distance necessary to survive.
When an inheritance leaves Fin with an abandoned train depot in rural Newfoundland, N.J., he immediately moves there looking not for something but for nothing. He just wants to be left alone. What he does not count on is Joe.
For parked outside Fin's isolated depot is a lunch wagon manned by a gregarious young Cuban (Bobby Cannavale) who's been sitting in for his ailing father for six weeks.
To call Joe chatty is like calling Fin small: Deprived of his usual level of companionship, the man is desperate for conversation, and he latches on to Fin like a Bible Belt minister out to save a soul. He is literally impossible to discourage, and it is a mark of the grace of Cannavale's engaging performance that Joe manages to be ingratiating rather than irritating, someone you have to like even as he's driving you crazy.
The way Fin meets Olivia (Clarkson), a regular customer of Joe's, is too delicious to reveal. A painter separated from her husband, she also doesn't care to chat, but for a more serious reason: She's still recovering from the death of her young son. Clarkson, always effective, gives Olivia the wistful tentativeness of a fragile person just barely holding it together.
Though the relationship among these three is the heart of "The Station Agent," this film has no lack of other memorable characters, including Emily ("Dawson's Creek's" Michelle Williams), the town's sylph-like librarian, and an inquisitive young person ("Lovely & Amazing's" Raven Goodwin) who wants to know what grade Fin is in.
In fact, the key accomplishment of writer-director McCarthy and his actors is how finely these people are drawn. McCarthy has the best ear and eye for what makes people individual as well as an exact sense of how far he can go without jeopardizing empathy and believability. He knows how messy other people's lives turn out to be when you get involved with them, and he understands not only the risks to yourself when you do, but the cost to yourself when you don't.
The Station Agent
MPAA rating: R, for language and some drug content
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter
Peter Dinklage...Fin McBride
Patricia Clarkson...Olivia Harris
Bobby Cannavale...Joe Oramas
Paul Benjamin...Henry Styles
A SenArt Films production in association with Next Wednesday, released by Miramax Films. Director Tom McCarthy. Producers Mary Jane Skalski, Robert May, Kathryn Tucker. Screenplay Tom McCarthy. Cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg. Editor Tom McArdle. Costumes Jeanne DuPont. Music Stephen Trask. Production design John Paino. Art director Len X. Clayton. Set decorator Erin Ohanneson. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
In limited release.