Like the time of year it’s named for, “Winter Solstice” is quiet and lovely — and a little too cold.
Writer-director Josh Sternfeld’s film is a well-intentioned though sometimes emotionally inert look at a family recovering from the loss of its matriarch. But in his feature debut, he shows a real confidence in himself and a comfort in depicting the small, intimate moments of daily life.
He also draws strong performances from Anthony LaPaglia as a suburban New Jersey widower and Aaron Stanford and Mark Webber as his teenage sons, who continue to retreat inward years after their mother’s death.
Sternfeld wisely doesn’t tell us up front that the wife of Jim Winters and the mother of sons Gabe (Stanford) and Pete (Webber) has died — and he doesn’t even tell us how she died until the movie’s almost over — but her presence, or rather her absence, hovers over everything they do.
Jim stoically goes about his work as a landscaper to the wealthy and politely declines when a client offers to set him up on a date. Gabe asks for extra shifts at the produce market where he works and secretly makes plans to move to Florida, even though it would mean leaving behind his beautiful, laid-back girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan).
And then there’s Pete, who acts out by blowing off school and playing basketball with friends. He’s also a gangly social moron who doesn’t know how to respond when new neighbor Molly (Allison Janney) invites the family over for dinner. This would all seem like normal teenage-boy behavior, but he’s actually the most screwed-up of the three Winters men, for reasons that eventually become apparent.
When Jim and Molly meet, it’s not in a cutesy way; she just lives nearby and borrows something from him, which she later returns. That’s that.
But they develop a sweet, believably awkward friendship which awakens something in Pete and morphs into more. It would have been nice to see more of Janney in the movie, since “The West Wing” co-star has a warm, wonderful presence about her, no matter what she’s in, that naturally draws your attention.
It also would have been great to see more of Ron Livingston as a history teacher who futilely uses dry humor to engage his slacker students, including Pete. He has maybe three scenes total; it’s such a waste.
In Sternfeld’s draggy landscape of skateboard parks, Dairy Queen parking lots and dead-end jobs, actors such as Livingston and Janney breathe much-needed life into it. Unfortunately, the film leaves you feeling like you’re going nowhere, just like his characters.