A reticent dwarf, a grieving mother and a chatty hot-dog vendor walk into a bar. Actually, they drink beer on a porch, but you get the idea.
It sounds like the setup to a joke, but it’s the premise of “The Station Agent,” a small film bursting with insightful humor, unforced poignancy and beautifully drawn characters.
Peter Dinklage (who’s extraordinary), Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale vividly portray three lonely people in rural New Jersey who form an unlikely social circle, despite their anti-social tendencies.
In the tiny universe writer-director Tom McCarthy has created in his auspicious film debut, they keep running into each other - sometimes literally - whether they want to or not.
Fin McBride (the 4-foot-6 Dinklage) is more interested in trains than people, and has recently moved into the empty, dilapidated train depot he inherited when his only friend died. He spends his days walking the rails alone, smoking and thinking, and when he opens his mouth, his deep, assured voice comes as a surprise.
During one of his walks, he’s nearly run over by Olivia (Clarkson), a spacey artist who’s easily distracted behind the wheel of her sport utility vehicle. When she knocks on his door later in a hesitant attempt at befriending him, she divulges that her son is dead and that she and her husband have separated - then passes out.
When she leaves hastily the next morning, it sparks the imagination of Joe (Cannavale), who sells coffee and hot dogs from the truck he parks outside Fin’s depot. Joe wants to make friends with Fin and Olivia, but is so hyperactive and overeager in his approach, he causes them both to retreat.
“You’re my hero, dog!” Joe gushes. “You wanna cold one?” Fin politely, but firmly, declines.
Because of his small stature, Fin has spent his entire life fortifying himself against menacing advances from people who treat him like a freak. So when Olivia and Joe approach him with kindness, he doesn’t quite know how to respond.
Fortunately for him (and for us) he slowly lets his defenses down, and the three form a friendship that’s awkward at first (which McCarthy’s observant script depicts with small talk and painful silences) but evolves in time.
That they’re all oddballs and misfits may sound a bit too precious, but McCarthy has developed the characters so fully, you’ll want to hang out with them long after the movie’s ending, which seems to come far too soon.
Clarkson is on a roll lately, between this, “All the Real Girls,” “The Safety of Objects,” last year’s “Far From Heaven” and the upcoming “Pieces of April.” In all these roles - and they’re all incredibly different from each other - she has a directness that’s captivating.
Cannavale brings a puppy-dog enthusiasm that’s hard to resist, and is even more intriguing because it masks his character’s loneliness and neediness.
But it’s Dinklage, with his quiet confidence, who carries the film squarely on his small shoulders.