Winter Solstice (September 27/05)
Right off the bat, Winter Solstice feels like a film with a singular vision behind it; with its extremely deliberate pace and emphasis on character development over plot, the movie can't help but come off as a typically introspective debut effort from a writer/director. In this case, it's Josh Sternfeld - a young filmmaker with a couple of shorts to his name and little else. But if Winter Solstice is any indication, Sternfeld should have a long career ahead of him (albeit on the fringes of mainstream cinema).
Anthony LaPaglia stars as Jim Winters, a hard-working family man attempting to raise two boys by himself: Pete (Mark Webber) is a high schooler with nothing but disdain for authority figures, while older sibling Gabe (Aaron Stanford) is struggling to make it on his own. Though Pete and Gabe have their own friends and their own lives, it's clear that Jim is reluctant to let them go completely - even insisting that they attend dinner at a new neighbor's house.
It seems fairly obvious that Winter Solstice won't appeal to all viewers; Sternfeld's patience in establishing the story and characters will undoubtedly strike some as self-indulgent and needlessly somber, though that's simply not the case. By allowing the proceedings to unfold slowly, Sternfeld effectively turns each of the central characters into figures worth following through the film's far-too-short 90 minutes (this is that rare movie that one wishes were longer, if only to spend a little more time with these people). But more than that, Sternfeld imbues Winter Solstice with a palpable sense of authenticity; by placing the focus on the characters' exploits, rather than subplots, there's a distinct sense of realism at work here.
As a result, the actors have a tremendous burden placed upon them - though, fortunately, the performances are uniformly superb. LaPaglia does a thoroughly impressive job of turning Jim into an intriguing, compelling figure, despite the character's less-than-vocal personality. Likewise, Stanford and Webber convincingly step into the shoes of their respective characters - turning them into likable figures worth rooting for, despite occasional bursts of obnoxious behavior.
And though the movie's morose vibe often threatens to take over (which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing), Sternfeld peppers the story with small moments of humor (including a sequence in which Jim, angry at Pete and Gabe, tosses their beds onto the lawn - forcing the boys to sleep outside). In the end, it's that feeling of unpretentious honesty that makes Winter Solstice such a gem; here's hoping that this marks the beginning of a long and fruitful career for Sternfeld.