April 10, 2020

The Station Agent (2003)
Grade: 80/100

Director: Tom McCarthy
Stars: Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale

What it's about. An independent film and comedy set in rural New Jersey. Fin (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf in his early 30s. His only friend is his employer Henry, an elderly black man (Paul Benjamin) who owns a shop in Hoboken selling miniature railroad kits. Fin shares his boss' fascination with trains.

Henry dies, and the shop is closed. Fin inherits from Henry a humble train station in the countryside. The train station has been abandoned for years, and trains no longer stop there, but the tracks remain. Fin moves to the station and is promptly befriended by Joe (Bobby Cannavale), an extrovert who parks nearby and sells food from his van. Fin also connects with Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an attractive forty-something woman who isn't much better at painting than she is at driving. Olivia is separated from her husband David (John Slattery), and is prone to depression. As is Fin, who tires of the social slights he regularly endures.

Despite a loner personality, Fin continues to make friends: Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a black grade schooler fascinated by railroads; and Emily (Michelle Williams), a ditzy blonde librarian.

How others will see it. The Station Agent had a tiny budget of 500K, despite the presence of veteran actresses Clarkson and Williams. It marked the directorial debut of Tom McCarthy, and it was also his first screenplay and first credit as producer. McCarthy's prior film experience was as actor, with roles dating to 1989.

The Station Agent was only a moderate financial success. Nonetheless, it was hailed on the festival circuit. The biggest prize was a BAFTA award for Best Original Screenplay, but there were dozens of other lesser wins and nominations. Most were for McCarthy as writer or director, and the performances of Dinklage and Clarkson.

Today at imdb.com, the film has 66K user votes, a huge total for a film of its budget. The user ratings are high at 7.6 out of 10. That figure rises to 8.0 among women over 45, the most reliably independent demographic. The user reviews are dominated by praise for the storytelling and performances, but haters of the film exist. One person notes that "not one white male is a decent person" and another proclaims that "offbeat is not the same as meritorious."

How I felt about it. The Station Agent takes the Ship of Fools (1965) approach to storytelling. The dwarf, despite his unusual size, is the normal person, and those around him, despite their normal appearance, are the fools. The dwarf just wants to be left alone to quietly live out his life, with greater interest in what people create (e.g. railroads) than in the people themselves. He can hardly be blamed for this attitude, considering how people treat him.

But in this movie, Fin will not be left alone. Joe, Olivia, Emily, and Cleo track him down. Fin gives in grudgingly, but eventually learns to cherish his new friends. After all, Joe can cook, Emily can kiss, and Olivia's house is accomodating. But as life often has it, once you become to close to a new friend, that person can unexpectedly pull away, without a reasonable explanation.

This is a charming movie with winning characters and performances. The casting is pleasing, and the dialogue is natural. The most obvious criticism that can be made is the unlikely final reel plot resolutions. To list them would be to spoil them, but I can say that a happy ending is the doubtful outcome of behavior that should lead to the two deaths. And Fin should give up the cigarettes, although I understand that is easier said than done.