“Winter Solstice” is such a low-key drama that I’m not sure anything happens in it at all. I like its characters, though; they feel like real people, with real hang-ups and motivations, and their dialogue sounds natural. I just wish they would DO something.
Regrettably, we have a pun title on our hands: Winter is the last name of the family involved, father Jim Winter (Anthony LaPaglia) and his sons Gabe (Aaron Stanford) and Pete (Mark Webber). Pete, who can hear just fine with a hearing aid, is only randomly motivated in his academic endeavors and will be sentenced to summer school again this year. Gabe, a few years older, has a girlfriend named Stacy (Michelle Monaghan) and works at a produce warehouse, though he has plans to move to Tampa to live with a friend and try something different.
The Winter men as a group are still reeling from Mom’s death. The film is more than an hour old before her demise is stated outright, but it’s clear from the beginning: Their breakfast conversations are terse and have an unspoken sadness; Jim enforces a family dinner every night to ensure their continued togetherness, and Pete and Gabe are only to happy to oblige him. Jim and the boys love each other, and we get the impression they have grown closer since Mom died.
But they are stagnant, and the film is about their stagnancy, and that is undoubtedly why the film itself sometimes feels motionless and uneventful. Jim meets Molly Ripkin (Allison Janney), a single woman who has moved in down the street in their New Jersey suburb, and she is a catalyst for some change, just as Pete’s experiences in summer school and Gabe’s decision to move to Florida help them.
The key is something Pete learns in history class, about how the Mongols quit conquering Europe and went home after Genghis Khan died, simply because without their leader, they couldn’t decide what to do next. Mrs. Winter was evidently the glue that bonded the Winter family, for now, without her, everyone is stuck.
The film was written and directed by Josh Sternfeld, his first time in either capacity. It has that Sundance indie-drama feel to it (indeed, the script went through Sundance’s screenplay lab), but it’s more ambitious, and in more subtle ways, than many of its cousins. The Winters speak to each other the way family members do, without elaborate exposition. Even when Mom’s death is finally mentioned, she is never called by her first name but simply “my wife”; Pete and Gabe never call her “mom,” but refer to her as “she.” Gabe is going to live with someone named Brian in Tampa, but we don’t know who that is. A friend? A relative? No one specifies, because no one needs to: Jim, Pete and Gabe all know who Brian is.
In the final analysis, I like what the film is trying to do more than I like the way it does it. Kitchen-sink dramas that are realistic and uncontrived are rare, and so I find myself wanting to appreciate “Winter Solstice” more than I do. It doesn’t need anything flashy, but it does need a more solid story line, a more definable path of progression for its characters.
C+ (1 hr., 29 min.; )