Peter Dinklage plays Fin McBride (courtesy photo)

Mismatched trio rides the rails in the season's biggest "small" film

Fin McBride is a dwarf. It's what people notice about him. It's what prompts a shopkeeper to ambush him with her disposable camera and a redneck to shout taunts in his direction. But it's hardly Fin's most defining deviation from the norm - Fin is obsessed with trains. When we meet him, Fin is employed in a hobby shop devoted to model train sets. He and his boss wear black suits and take their pastime very seriously. Told that a certain engine is due for delivery soon, Fin says gravely that it "shouldn't be a problem." His legs and arms are stunted, but it is the man's face that holds our attention - a sober visage containing dark eyes that sternly ward off unwelcome curiosity, seeming perplexed and world-weary simultaneously. Before we really know what this movie is about, we're hoping to see actor Peter Dinklage in another one soon.

The Station Agent
Dir. & writ. Thomas McCarthy; feat. Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Benjamin, Raven Goodwin, Michelle Williams (R)
Fin's boss dies, leaving him a piece of property that would be an albatross for anyone else: a run-down one-room train station situated where trains no longer stop, but do pass by at all hours of the day and night. (Fin may be the first real-estate customer for whom 3 a.m. window-rattling awakenings are a selling point.) Stuck in way-rural New Jersey, the would-be station agent's new home offers little in the way of diversion. There is a bar he doesn't want to patronize, a library where he can't get a borrower's card until someone sends him mail, and a coffee stand whose extroverted proprietor won't take no for an answer.

There is a type of film known as a "Sundance movie," where character is more important than genre, quirks are treasured, and action takes a back seat to the kinds of quiet scenes that develop a sense of place. Idiosyncratic in theory, these movies often feel as formulaic as a Hollywood blockbuster in practice. The Station Agent (which won a few awards at this year's festival) is what the average Sundance movie wants to grow up to be: engaging, charming, and witty without often falling back on the easy tricks that keep non-story stories from boring audiences. It is difficult not to be intrigued by these people: the stoic Fin; Joe (Bobby Cannavale), the café con leche salesman who latches onto the new arrival like a stray dog; and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an absentminded painter who has come to the country to escape a painful history and runs Fin off the road not once but twice. The three don't develop into a love triangle, plan to rob a bank, or find a corpse in the woods - they just form a tentative alliance of outsiders in a place far from their homes.

Bobby Cannavale and Patricia Clarkson co-star in The Station Agent (courtesy photo)

Instead of plot, writer/director Thomas McCarthy gives us the gentlest kind of comedy. A club of train enthusiasts gathers around a film of a steam locomotive as if it were a stag film ("It was not extremely windy, but the smoke did billow," the cameraman remembers proudly); Joe asks permission to rifle through his reluctant friend's book only after he's almost done skimming it; Fin wins the attention of a girl Joe wants because he has a nice chin. It's easygoing, wry stuff, like a Hal Hartley movie stripped of the tension and scripted by a naturalist - or like a less kooky, less populous version of Northern Exposure.

Not quite a movie where nothing happens, Agent does build up some minor mysteries in its second half. Not one but two suicidal gestures take place, and they happen at the same time for maximum dramatic impact. But they aren't presented as earth-shattering events, and come morning, the participants dust themselves off and go back about their business. There may not be much going on in Newfoundland, New Jersey - but for them and for moviegoers, it would be a shame to miss a bit of it. •

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