Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) is a widower raising two teenage sons in a modest New Jersey home where the unspoken presence of the boys' mother - killed in a car accident five years earlier - lingers with quiet intensity. 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. When Molly Ripken (Allison Janney) moves into the quiet little community to housesit for a friend, she ignites a spark in Jim that he'd long since let die, empowering him to let go of the emotional baggage that has kept him from exploring intimacy and perhaps life itself.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Quietly exploring the barren no-man's land between adult, Anglo Saxon males, where there is not enough communication coverage to reach each others' wavelengths, Winter Solstice will either draw you in or bore you brainless. Tellingly, there isn't a single person with a mobile phone and I wonder whether this story was written or conceived 10 or 20 years ago perhaps. This is relevant where a communication tool like a mobile would make a huge difference to plot points.
Written, directed and performed with great subtlety, the story (if that's not too strong a word for it) is about the pain and suffering of a father and his two now teenage sons after the accidental death of his wife and their mother. And the faint hope that spring brings them.
But even the pivotal fact of her death is only vaguely alluded to, until the film is two thirds over, as we reconnoitre the Winters home. (The title and the family name are the least subtle aspect of the film.) The mother's passing has left a huge blank in their lives, and the widower has closed the doors and windows of his heart. His modestly successful landscape gardening business fills his days, and nothing much fills his evenings or nights.
The quietness and emptiness of the suburban community emphasies the isolation of the characters, not only from the buzz of life, but from each other.
The film's greatest rewards are the performances; Anthony LaPaglia captures the brooding trauma of the lost widower. Molly Ripken (excellent Allison Janney) winkles out an emotional response from Jim, in a couple of scenes handled with great care and sensitivity - so much so it's almost too nuanced and delicate. The two sons are also excellent, giving us multi dimensional characters in full teenage flight.
Each scene is crafted with precision to engage us and shine a beam into the hearts and souls of these characters.
Review by Louise Keller:
There's a line in Winter Solstice, when Anthony LaPaglia's Jim Winters is having dinner with Allison Janney's new house-sitting neighbour Molly at her place. They have only just met and they are having an exchange about their lives. Jim is a landscape gardener, and he explains to Molly that once the garden has been designed, 'you have to take care of it... or it will fall apart quickly.' He might have been referring to a garden, but he could also have been talking about a family, which is the theme of this involving drama, whose members have been shattered by the loss of a wife and mother.
Symbolically, the film is set during the winter Solstice, when spring begins to make good her promise. Writer director Josh Sternfeld entices us into the sterile lives of the all-male Winters family, who live a dysfunctional existence. Each member deals with his loss in a different way. Jim buries himself in his work, his elder son Gabe (Aaaron Stanford) wants to leave his home state, while Pete (Mark Webber) can't concentrate at school. It's a slice of life in the lives of the Winters and a lone acoustic guitar strums regularly between scenes, as if to keep the family together.
For the first time since his wife died, Jim has contact (even in a small, insignificant way) with another woman; Gabe finally plucks up the courage to quit his job and leave his girlfriend; Pete responds to a new teacher at summer school. There is no revelation or major event in this film, but several catalysts bring a shift to the status quo.
Winter Solstice is an intense drama and all the action is internal. LaPaglia is such a fine actor and every nuance of his bottled up Jim comes through, as he struggles to not only be a good father, but to find a direction in his own life. All the performances are spot on and the film's end could well be a beginning. After all, winter does turn into spring.
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WINTER SOLSTICE (M)
CAST: Anthony LaPaglia, Aaron Stanford, Mark Webber, Allison Janney, Michelle Monaghan
PRODUCER: Doug Bernheim, John Limotte
DIRECTOR: Joshua Sternfeld
SCRIPT: Joshua Sternfeld
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Harlan Bosmajian
EDITOR: Plummy Tucker
MUSIC: John Leventhal
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jody Asnes
RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: UIP
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 24, 2005
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount
VIDEO RELEASE: April 20, 2006