In Josh Sternfeld's understated "Winter Solstice," the absence of a wife and mother in a family household is palpable. Long before Sternfeld lets his audience know the woman did in fact die in a car accident, it is clear that Anthony LaPaglia's Jim Winters, a New Jersey landscape architect, is a widower and not a divorce. Well before Jim angrily reminds his older son, Gabe (Aaron Stanford), how hard he has worked to hold his family together, his efforts are abundantly clear.
Although the Winters' home, an attractive vintage frame house in an upscale suburb, is well maintained, it's a little drab -- in a subtle way that characterizes the entire film -- there's a suggestion that a woman's touch is lacking. What is also lacking in the Winters household is communication.
A stocky, solid-looking man in early middle age, Jim clearly loves his two sons but hasn't a clue how to express it -- or how to get them to be open with him in return.
Gabe, the responsible type, is working overtime at his warehouse job to save money to go to Florida, where a friend can get him a job on a boat. Pete (Mark Webber) is bright but a terrible student who for the second time has been told he must go to summer school to make up some classes.
Jim is sustained by his love for his work and his sense of obligation to his sons. Gabe wants only to escape, while Pete is sinking into aimlessness. The Winters family is steeped in long-standing sadness, and "Winter Solstice" covers several months in their lives.
As spring arrives, there is the inkling that the family, each member in his own manner, may be beginning to find a way of working past the grief.
Sternfeld's approach is rigorously minimalist, which is a plus since the Winters family is in no way extraordinary or distinctive. Since their community is clearly pricey, however, it defies credibility in an otherwise persuasive drama that college never seems to come up.
"Winter Solstice" is a graceful ensemble piece with effective performances from the entire cast, which includes the always wonderful Allison Janney as a single woman new to the neighborhood, Michelle Monaghan as the girl Gabe is preparing to leave behind and Ron Livingston as a self-possessed and imaginative history teacher with whom Pete might just connect. "Winter Solstice" is a film not of conclusions but of awakened possibilities.
MPAA rating: R for language
Times guidelines: Adult themes, suitable for mature teens
Anthony LaPaglia...Jim Winters
Aaron Stanford...Gabe Winters
Mark Webber...Pete Winters
Allison Janney...Molly Ripken
Ron Livingston...Mr. Bricker
A Paramount Classics release of a Sound Pictures production. Writer-director Josh Sternfeld. Producers John Limotte, Doug Bernheim. Executive producers Anthony LaPaglia, Jodi Peikoff. Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian. Editor Plummy Tucker. Music John Leventhal. Costumes Paola Ruby Weintraub. Production designer Jody Asnes. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
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