The Station Agent

October, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Thomas McCarthy

Starring:Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, and Michelle Williams

Whether you respond to director Tom McCarthy's debut film depends, to a large degree, upon just how disbelief you're willing to suspend; while this one walked away with top honors at the Sundance Film Festival, the fact remains that, at bottom, it's really a chick flick for the new millennium, vastly enriched by the quietly powerful performance of Peter Dinklage, its leading man. 

Dinklage, a height-challenged loner with the unlikely name of Finbar McBride, inherits an abandoned train agent's station in rural New Jersey from the owner of the model train shop where both worked before the latter died. Finbar, understandably wary of the reactions most people accord dwarfs, seeks a life of solitude away from the awkward reactions he provokes. But the world intrudes, in the form of a relentlessly cheerful hot dog vendor, an intriguing woman who struggles with her art while nursing a dark secret from her past, a timid young librarian with a problematic love life and a poor but bright African-American child whose blunt questions get short shrift from Finbar' matching stature.

Of course, the painter's secret will out, the annoying puppy dog of a vendor will emerge as a man-child with deep insecurities masked by his relentless cheerfulness, the librarian will confront her boyfriend while putting Finbar in jeopardy and the persistent ghetto child will convince Finbar to address her grade school class, (on the subject of railroads) where he'll encounter boorishness and acceptance in equal measure--but McCarthy manages to wrap all this in dialogue sufficiently crisp to keep the audience with him for this brief (88 minutes) trip into the lives of his characters. He's enormously aided in this regard by an outstanding performance from Dinklage; with a complete lack of self-consciousness and a coolly detached persona, the actor superbly presents a complex and utterly believable character without self-pity or excessive focus on his size. Indeed, McCarthy insists that he initially created Finbar as a man of normal height, and it's a tribute to Dinklage's craft that his physical appearance becomes so quickly irrelevant. 

But this remains at heart a film about human relationships, and while its intentions are good, they're pretty shallow as well--McCarthy ends his movie, (as is currently fashionable with this type of bittersweet slice of life) with no resolution for the challenges facing his three leads but the suggestion that they've found in each other the means necessary to continue the struggles present in their respective lives. Yet the endless walks along abandoned railroad beds, the drunken confrontation in the bar, the pregnant waif who seeks Finbar's solace; all have the look and feel of scenes we've seen too often elsewhere, and McCarthy's inability to wring anything new from them produces, in sum, a soap-opera for the hip-hop generation.

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