The main character in “The Station Agent” is a dwarf, but dwarfism is almost never an issue in the film. Early in his tentative, halting friendship with another guy, the new friend asks, “Do you people have clubs?” But he doesn’t mean dwarfs; he means train enthusiasts, which the dwarf also is. In the world of this film, people are who they are first and what they look like second.
The world of this film is a fine place, and the film itself is a warm, contemplative comedy that cannot, I suspect, fail to make a viewer exit happier than he went in.
Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) is the aforementioned little person, and early in the movie he inherits an abandoned train depot in rural Newfoundland, N.J. He moves there immediately, seeking to shut himself off from society, which frequently gives him more attention than he wants. A train depot that is barely used seems the perfect place.
Except that each morning, an exceedingly friendly young man named Joe (Bobby Cannavale) sets up his portable coffee cart next to the depot. He wants to be Finbar’s friend, and not out of curiosity, but because Joe — for reasons that are never explained and that remain a pleasant mystery to me — does not seem to have any good friends, despite being handsome, athletic and easy-going.
Into their world comes another local, Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), a free-spirited artist whose son died not long ago and who is now going through a painful divorce. She, like Finbar, is alone and thinks she prefers it that way. Joe has progressed beyond both of them: He recognizes that neither he nor anyone else truly wants to be alone.
What this film is about, ultimately, is a handful of disparate characters who are feebly, awkwardly coming together. They make connections, while simultaneously trying to resist the urge to connect. In addition to the three mentioned, there is a chubby young girl (Raven Goodwin) and a teen-age library attendant (Michelle Williams), each of whom also, in her own way, seeks contact with the rest of the world.
The humor in the film, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, comes naturally from the vivid characters he’s created. They seem like real people — credit the low-key, intuitive performances for that — who happen to have been thrown together.
Peter Dinklage is outstanding as Finbar, with a world-weary, cynical expression that barely masks a yearning for true friendship; he also has a gift for deadpan comedy. Bobby Cannavale couldn’t be more likable as Joe, and I have yet to not enjoy Patricia Clarkson in anything she’s done. Her character expresses the most emotion here of anyone, and as such provides the film’s heart.
It’s a big heart, too, there on the sleeve of a pleasingly introspective comedy that, despite being introspective, never takes itself too seriously. I smile just thinking about this film, recalling very few actual lines that made me laugh (though I know there were many), but remembering the general sense of contentment it made me feel. It is the best thing a movie can be: fun to watch.
A- (1 hr., 30 min.; )