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Dustin Putman

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The Station Agent (2003)
3 Stars

Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Michelle Williams, Raven Goodwin, Paul Benjamin, Josh Pais, Richard Kind.
2003 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language and some drug content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 25, 2003.

Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage), a 4-foot-5-inch adult dwarf, walks into a convenience store to buy some milk. "Excuse me," he suddenly hears from behind him. When Fin turns, the cashier has her disposable camera in hand, ready to snap a picture of him. In return, he sort of smirks and nods, thinking to himself that he isn't the one who is the freak. Fin is used to such reactions, and he has more or less accepted his lot in life, even if he isn't particularly happy with it. The unpredictable and keen observations within this scene speak more than words in "The Station Agent," a magical slice-of-life whose small-scale nature is part of its effervescent charm.

Fin, a train aficionado and model builder, is suddenly without a friend and a job when his best buddy and co-worker (Paul Benjamin) suddenly dies. In his will, however, he has left Fin with the property of a closed-down train depot in the sleepy town of Newfoundland, New Jersey. Fin has soon made the depot his home, and makes two unlikely friends: Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), a friendly vendor whose truck is set up across the street, and Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), a lonely woman looking for a reason to live following the death of her only child.

The relationship between Fin, Joe, and Olivia is one of the most lovely caught on film this year. It is an unlikely one at first glance, but then their connection gathers focus as it becomes apparent that what each one needs, the other two can provide. In the way that Joe yearns to befriend Fin, continuing to wear him down until Fin can't help but like him, and in the way that Olivia works herself into their duo out of equal helpings of chance and fate, these three completely original, beautifully realized characters share a friendship that is real, honest, and filled with subtle warmth.

As Fin, Joe, and Olivia while away their days walking the train tracks, taking in the woodsy scenery, and barbecuing chicken, two more people enter into Fin's life. Emily (Michelle Williams) is a cute librarian with a crush on Fin from the moment he walks in to check out a book, while curious 10-year-old Cleo (Raven Goodwin) finds herself smitten by and relating to a grown man who is her height.

Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, "The Station Agent" is an inventive indie gem, undoubtedly modest in scope but with a tender heart, some wonderful performances, and quite a few big laughs. As the introverted Fin, who has a difficult time trusting people until he gets to know them, real-life dwarf Peter Dinklage delivers a star-making performance. He commands the screen with introspective glances and expressions and on-target body language, as opposed to a lot of dialogue. It's quite an impressive first leading role. Patricia Clarkson (2002's "Far From Heaven") is deeply affecting as the heartbroken Olivia, an old-school artist who hasn't yet come to terms with her son's death. And playing what is the film's best character, Bobby Cannavale (1999's "The Bone Collector") tears up the screen with such compassion, energy, and go-getter kindness that you just want to hug him. Cannavale's Joe is the type of guy attracted to humans and their nature, period. Dedicated to his ailing father at home, Joe searches for a bond, for another person with whom he can share an afternoon with or even a quick beer, and he finds that person in Fin. The way that Joe doesn't give up, keeps his smile, and continues to plug away at life, even when Fin initially rejects him, is lovably realized. As a viewer, you can't help but want Joe as a friend.

"The Station Agent" is simple from a narrative standpoint, but it is perceptive in its views of human nature and has quite a lot more to say than first meets the eye. In Fin, we do not have some stereotypical dwarf hero who is made to look just too darn cute for words. Instead, he becomes a living and breathing creation, a person whose size eventually doesn't even fit into the equation anymore. When, near the end, a fed-up Fin stands up in a bar and angrily tells the other staring customers, "Here I am! Take a good look!," we are startled to realize his dwarfism has long since stopped being even a thought in our minds. Following a slow-going opening 15 minutes, "The Station Agent" becomes a grand entertainment, a genuinely sweet film that nonetheless avoids sentiment and mawkish emotions. That the somewhat abrupt ending comes as a disappointment less than 90 minutes after it had begun only goes to show how infectious it is. It isn't that the film ends too soon, or at the wrong spot; it's just that you aren't ready to say good-bye to these characters and their lives.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman