Winter Solstice is one of those pathetically contrived titles that pun on a character’s name, as if it were some very clever accomplishment to make up a character name that puns. It is only a half a rung more elegant than clunkers like Saving Grace or Raising Helen, but at least it has the dignity not to simply precede the name with a carefully selected gerund. A title like that does not bode well for an independent relationship drama; I weep for the marketing team that has to sell this movie.
Fortunately, the film itself rises far above its silly moniker. The American indie canon has countless examples of quirky dramas about families dealing with grief “in their own ways” — just this year brought us Imaginary Heroes and The Upside of Anger — but rarely do those movies approach their characters with this much affection and respect. In an effort to secure distribution for their films, independent filmmakers will add as much sensationalist conflict as possible, making the protagonists experimental subjects rather than real people; Winter Solstice is quiet, eminently unostentatious, and more affecting than you might expect.
Writer-director Josh Sternfeld allows the conflict to develop not as a “plot” or a “storyline” but as a natural progression of events in the life of a family. We aren’t necessarily provided with all of the motivations for characters’ actions, and yet there they are, like it or not; it’s not a “slice of life” in the conventional sense, in that things do happen and the film isn’t particularly “observational” in nature, but nor does the movie indulge its narrative. We are introduced to Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia), a single father trying desperately to hold on to his malcontent, roguish sons Gabe (Aaron Stanford) and Pete (Mark Webber). A crucial time in their lives plays out before our eyes, but we never feel like Sternfeld is putting on a show. “Contrivance” is not in his vocabulary.
The characters, for their part, are questioning everything in their lives, and making desperate attempts to find direction, or at least a direction. “Why?” is a simple question repeated over and over again in Winter Solstice, and we get the feeling that asking it is a form of liberation, a brazen demand for independence — they will no longer simply accept the options laid down in front of them. Other times it is less of a question and more of a plea, particularly when spoken by Jim, who wants more than anything to have some semblance of a normal relationship with the people left in his life.
In a move that is likely to charm some segments of the cineaste crowd, Sternfeld ends his movie well before it becomes obvious that an ending is imminent. Certain things are resolved, and some story threads begin to show signs of tying in a knot, but most everything else is left hanging precariously in the air. The relationship between Jim and Holly (Allison Janney), specifically, remains a huge question mark, but I suspect it’s better that way — it is obvious that they’ve made a connection, which is an enormous step for the former, and where they go from here is probably less relevant.
Sternfeld gets strong performances out of his cast, including the generally underrated LaPaglia and Stanford, who is looking for all the world like a young Steve Buscemi. But the young filmmaker’s talent lies mostly in creating a compelling set of characters and striking a tone that lets them live on the screen instead of being puppeteered by a tyrannical screenplay. Winter Solstice is as haunting and memorable as it is quiet and unassuming. It’s a terrific surprise.