The film breathes the air and walks the streets of a pleasant, dead-end New Jersey town in spring and summer. The "solstice" of the title hints that widower Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) and his two sons seemingly suffer through the longest night of the year day after day. Late in the film we learn the details of Jim's wife's death five years earlier, and though the Winters household no longer openly grieves, the dynamic relies on an uneasy truce rather than open support.
Common events nudge the story forward. Jim, a landscaper for more privileged families, warily courts new neighbor Molly (Allison Janney). Teenage son Pete (Mark Webber) struggles with flagging grades and a bad attitude. Older son Gabe (Aaron Stanford) announces a vague plan to move to Tampa, which his father takes as a personal rebuke, although Jim never says that in so many words.
Nearly all of Winter Solstice's deepest feelings remain unspoken. When characters talk, they swap pleasantries, make awkward attempts to bond or air grievances, then let conversations taper off. When Molly meets Pete and asks, "What about your mom?" the teen never answers her directly, but unmistakably, something shuts down behind his eyes. In nearly every scene, one person craves some kind of emotional recognition, but doesn't come out and say so. The other person knows exactly what's expected, but withholds it anyway.
Sternfeld shrewdly casts Webber and Stanford against type. With his open-faced, innocent demeanor, you can imagine Webber playing Jimmy Fallon's eager kid brother, which makes Pete's occasionally hostile outbursts all the more unexpected. Webber continually gives Pete that maddening, typical-teen look that says every minute talking to an adult is an agonizing imposition, but there's enough sorrow in his demeanor that he's easy to forgive.
Stanford gives Gabe the vibe of a rebel looking for a cause. He brings out the restlessness and resentment in Gabe, as if he's sick of being the "good son." He dutifully labors in some unspecified food service hell, and it can't be a coincidence that while Jim nurtures plants for a living, Gabe chops and packages them, an almost subliminal form of rebellion.
LaPaglia again proves to be an attentive, sensitive actor at playing working-class Americans - even though he's Australian. We believe Jim has only recently recovered from his wife's death, and after the effort of raising his sons by himself, he finds it easier to be lonely than to open his heart any further. He plays superbly off Janney, who makes Molly self-conscious and awkward. During a friendly encounter their eyes meet, then she laughs and says, "No, I've never been married," answering his unasked question.
For a first-time filmmaker, Sternfeld shows surprising confidence in building a film out of modest moments that don't even qualify as "epiphanies." The brothers take a swim for possibly the last time. Gabe's ex-girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) runs into Jim and Pete, who'll clearly miss having her in their lives. Jim and Gabe argue over who gets to keep some of his late mother's possessions.
Winter Solstice explores a dynamic comparable to the recent film The Upside of Anger, in which a mother and her daughters reacted more stridently to her husband's absence. But where Anger visibly strained to meet the requirements of a commercial film, Winter Solstice effortlessly captures the conflicts and reconciliations of real life.
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