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A Beautifully Average Film

Through my long, tortured and fruitless years as a film scholar I have found that movies with "mixed reviews" are generally the most entertaining to watch. Winter Solstice, the first feature by writer/director Josh Sternfeld, scored a 69% rating on the Tomatometer--a tool that groups reviews by accredited critics and then spits out an overall approval average for each film. This incredibly unflattering rank speaks volumes for the amount of depth Solstice contains--and for the plot...which is most wonderfully absent.

It's funny that I found myself watching a film with all the qualities of a great documentary on the day I was attempting to escape the form altogether. Needing a break from the action at Hot Docs, I strolled into Winter Solstice expecting a heavily story-laced treat. What I got instead was the day-to-day dealings of a family, shot through the lens of a true documentarian. Sternfeld represents his characters objectively--in that cinema verite, fly-on-the-wall reporting style. He casts no light, negative or otherwise, on the situations and dialogues that arise. Sternfeld allows the viewer to absorb all the action and inaction without a trace of bias. What we are left with is a well-crafted, 93-minute glimpse into the life of a family that has lost something important.

Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) is desperately trying to provide a stable environment for his two boys, Gabe and Pete, and connect with them emotionally at the same time. Unfortunately he lacks the communication skills to break barriers, and has long ago lost the ability to discipline his children. His wife, and the boys' mother, is out of the picture--she died in a car crash a few years back. This tragic event, while rarely discussed, has had major effects on all members of the Winters family.

Pete misbehaves in school and views graduation as an unimportant event. Gabe makes the most random and poorly planned decision to move to Tampa, Florida. Jim Winters, on the other hand, is left to sweep up the shards and construct some semblance of family life. We get the feeling that without a mother figure in the household there will always be a few pieces missing. She was the glue that kept the family from falling apart.

This film, unlike others, chooses not to deal with the specifics of the tragedy. It has enough balls to deal with the aftermath: what goes on after all the services have ceased, after the black suits have collected dust, after the familial support has thinned, after all the crying has stopped and the tears have dried. These three men, once united in a communal grieving process, now have nothing in common...save for genetics. Pete and Gabe are unable to reach out emotionally to their father--this film is great at illustrating that weird, unaffectionate bond that forms between fathers and sons. It shows just how dry things can become without a woman's presence (a gardening/fertility metaphor is toyed with throughout the film).

Winter Solstice is not a great film. It is an average film about an average family coping with circumstances in a typical way. There really is no resolution at the end--life, when you boil it down, has no real resolution...it just keeps moving forward and, like the seasons, continually changes. If we want to get hopeful, remember that Spring follows Winter. Spring brings new life and new possibilities. Perhaps Gabe will fall in love with a woman in Tampa; perhaps Pete will become the scholar we know he has the ability to; perhaps Jim and the new woman in town will get hitched. Perhaps.

If you do have an extra $10 in your pocket, and films like XXX: State of the Union give you the creeps, I recommend catching Winter Solstice. Here is my little warning: Do not wait until Hot Docs is finished to see this movie. During the late screening, I was the only person in the entire theatre. No lie. I'm not sure how long Carlton can afford to keep the Solstice celluloid in the projector. Sadly, The Amityville Horror scored another 14 million at the box office this weekend. Good work, people.


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