In his greatly promising debut feature The Station Agent, writer-director Thomas McCarthy tells a simple story with a rare gentleness which most audiences will find surprisingly life-like. McCarthy lovingly watches his characters waver and right themselves as if they were his own children astride new bikes. He also offers the role of a lifetime to little person Peter Dinklage, and though Dinklage's stature may lightly serve the film's metaphors, McCarthy never mines it for cheap laughs. In fact, through observational contemplation, McCarthy strolls us through the most honestly funny picture of the year.
Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, a train enthusiast handed a change of life by fate. When his job and only friend spirit away, Fin strikes out to Newfoundland, New Jersey to begin a new life, and preferably a quiet one. Soon after setting up his humble home in an abandoned train depot, Fin's plans are dashed by Joe (Bobby Cannavale), the garrulous hot dog vendor who daily (and inexplicably) sets up shop a stone's throw from Fin's remote doorstep. Shortly after fending off Joe's friendly advances, Fin is nearly run over by an artist named Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an endearingly disheveled soul working out her own personal issues. The three slowly become fast friends in a series of delightfully lazy exchanges set against the backdrop of a still, spacious, wooded burg as seemingly immutable as a train set.
Fin's new hobby of trainspotting graduates him from a small-scale life spent with model trains to the great big real thing. He's stubbornly cranky when he's not socially awkward, and yet a widening circle practically conspires to draw him out. For most of the townspeople, curiosity and guilty consciences quickly melt to affection for Fin, whose short stature clearly belies a big heart. Romance threatens to bloom with a young librarian (Michelle Williams), and grade-schooler Cleo (Raven Goodwin of Lovely and Amazing) invites him to show-and-tell, to discuss trains.
Each invitation to Fin opens him to personal risk, but he finds himself moving inexorably into a world, of people, that he assumed he would eternally forsake. Dinklage's longing to get away from it all and harness the freewheeling promise of trains has an obvious dark side. Trains stay on track and on schedule in a way that real life never does. Early on, Fin checks his pocket watch like a conductor, but it is Olivia's unexpected veering from course which shakes him out of his willfully lonely comfort zone.
The first two acts--eccentric and drily funny--are solid gold; the conflict of the third act comes off as a bit contrived, but Clarkson and Dinklage carry it off with conviction. Clarkson, who's zesty in this year's Pieces of April, does more nuanced work in this tragicomic performance. Cannavale's indomitable good-humor man is, flatly, hilarious, his patter peppered with "dude"s and "you the man"s, and my favorite exclamation: "You're my hero, dog!"; admirably, Cannavale also refuses caricature with spontaneous displays of hurt feeling. Dinklage, previously relegated to roles which avidly exploited his height, makes his accidentally magnetic Everyman as charming and assiduously low-key as the film.
The film's leisurely but never wasteful pace--scored with a light touch by Stephen Trask--hits the spot while reminding us of a kind of story as quaint and coveted as the old-fashioned trains Fin pursues. The Station Agent, with no apparent effort, characterizes the beginning of a beautiful friendship.