Winter Solstice

A quiet, modest indie, Josh Sternfeld’s “Winter Solstice,” is a sharply observed, well acted family melodrama about loss.  The film offers a poignant look at a middle-aged father and his two teenage sons as they struggle to establish their independence after the death of their mother in an accident.

Every December, when the Winter Solstice arrives, it’s an opportunity to bring warmth and light into the darkest time of the year, and that what writer-director Sternfeld has done with his impressive feature debut. Developed at the Sundance Festival Screenwriter’s Lab, the film is fueled with intense yet understated emotions and surprising optimism, a kind of renewed faith in the meaning of family life.

Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) is a widower raising two teenage sons in a New Jersey home, where the unspoken presence of the boys’ mother–killed in a car accident five years earlier– still lingers with quiet intensity all over their lives. Gabe (Aaron Stanford), the oldest son, wants nothing more than to get out of the New Jersey suburbs and start a new life in Florida, even if it means leaving behind his girlfriend Stacey (Michelle Monaghan), his younger brother Pete (Mark Webber), and his father, who has tried to be strong and filled the void of his wife’s presence.

Jim doesn’t have a clue that Gabe wants to leave town. He’s busy trying to run a small landscaping business and keep Pete on track to finish high school, something at which Pete’s teacher Bricker (Ron Livingston) is working hard as well. Usually content just to hang out with his buddies and shoot hoops, Pete gets increasingly restless and at odds with nearly everyone around him. He’s certainly not about to open up about surviving the crash that took his mother’s life. For their parts, his father and brother are also not comfortable enough to let out their emotions about their mother’s “present” absence.

The Winters’ emotional impasse begins to change, when Molly Ripken (Allison Janney) moves into the quiet little community to house it for a friend. Looking for help with her unpacking, Molly borrows a dolly from Jim, and when she returns it, she invites him and his boys to dinner as a gesture of thanks. With this subtle act of boldness, Molly ignites a spark in Jim that he’d long since let die. It’s as though she empowers the man to let go of the emotional baggage that has long kept him from exploring intimacy and even life itself.

When the night of the dinner rolls around, the boys ditch their dad, and he’s forced to go alone. It turns out to be a blessing in disguise: A meal alone with Molly helps to crack open this man of steel and gets him to start shedding his “super dad” front. It hasn’t been easy being both father and mother, and confiding in Molly unleashes Jim’s frustrations, gets him talking about his past, and starts preparing him for his present.

In the film’s most humorous sequence, Jim returns home after dinner to find his boys still out. He decides that if they want independence, he’s going to “help” them stay out all night. Tosses their mattresses and bedding on the front lawn, Jim forces his sons to sleep out all night. The next morning, the reality of Gabe’s decision to leave home and Pete’s growing rebelliousness still linger, but Jim’s got a new spring in his step. He can finally see the brighter times that lay ahead, and he knows in is heart that it is finally time to leave the darkness behind.

Sternfeld’s short film, “Balloons, Streamers,” screened at both the Sundance and New York Film Festivals and later sold to the Sundance Channel. Premiering at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, “Winter Solstice” showcases a new filmmaker blessed with sharp observational powers and narrative economy. Thematically, Sternfeld explores the concept of fear in its various manifestations, fear of expressing yourself, fear of your own
emotions, above all, fear of change.

The quality of his writing brought a terrific cast, headed by Anthony LaPaglia (“Without a Trace,” “Lantana”) to the project. The subtleties in Sternfeld’s screenplay are expressed as much in words as in pauses and silences. None of the characters is really talkative, which means that the little they do say becomes more meaningful. The always-excellent Allison Janney (best known for her role as C.J. Cregg in the acclaimed TV series “The West Wing”) is the film’s only female presence, playing Molly, the new resident and Jim’s future romantic interest.

Since the dialogue is sparse, every word and gesture is critical in moving the relationship forward. Though Molly and Jim are adults, they’re inexperienced in the rules of courtship, and don’t quite know how to go about it. It’s this aspect that makes the film more realistic and honest. All of the characters, young and mature ones alike, have to relearn the “rules of the game” whenever they enter into a new relationship.

As Jim’s sons, Aaron Stanford (“X2: X-Men United,” “Tadpole”) and Mark Webber (“Boiler Room,” “Snow Day”), playing Gabe and Pete, respectively, are equally good. Viewers will have no problem relating to the notion of detachment, the sudden feeling that it’s simply time to bust free and leave behind everything and everyone we know, which is the essence of how we grow and mature into ourselves.

The route to personal independence, however, is varied. Webber’s character Pete, the youngest of the Winters family, is coming into his own individuality by staging a quiet and intensely rebellion. Pete doesn’t come right out and say what’s on his mind. His dad tries to relate to him, but like other guys in rebellion mode, Pete would rather shut his father out than show emotion and be uncool; being cool means a lot to a man his age.

It’s a need Pete’s summer school teacher Bricker, portrayed by Ron Livingston (“Adaptation,” “The Cooler,”), understands well. Bricker knows that Pete is smart, but that he’s all jammed up inside. To unlock Pete is to acknowledge his intelligence, and that’s exactly what Bricker does. Rounding out the impressive cast is Michelle Monaghan (“The Bourne Supremacy”) who portrays Stacey, the understanding girlfriend Gabe leaves behind.