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Saturday, January 24, 2004
A GOOD TRAIN OF THOUGHT

The Station Agent is the kind of pitch which can never get anywhere in the Hollywood studio system. It's the kind of project on which I would never let my students work. The Station Agent is a story in which nothing really happens, in which the characters actually spend long stretches sitting next to each other in silence, reading and watching train tracks. I would tell my students to come back with an idea in which there is some visual movement. Shows how much I know.

The Station Agent exemplifies why we need independent cinema. This is the kind of delightful project that would be unmarketable by the studio machines - you know, one more embittered, isolated dwarf finds community with an older woman mourning her dead son, an overweight black third grader, and a Spanish speaking hot-dog vendor movie. Thank God for Sundance, which is the only venue in which a project like this can get a real hearing from the Hollywood distribution entities that are necessary to get any project into the theaters.

Despite the lack of pulse/visual conflict/action in The Station Agent, it still works because the filmmakers manage to create an underlying ominous threat, that at any moment, something bad might happen to the vulnerable little man who is the main character. There are just enough shots of redneckish brutes eyeing little Fin, to keep us nervous and alert for him throughout the whole film.

This film is all about character. A dwarf who loves trains!? On paper it would be too weird to live. On the screen it is brilliant only because it works.

Fin, as the big man seethingly trapped in a little person's body, is perfectly played by Peter Dinklage. As the sympathetic characters around him gradually start pulling at his crusty exterior, he slowly emerges as the steady, strong presence they will all need.

The character of Joe, played by Bobby Cannavale, instantly became one of my favorite screen characters ever. He is so good at being a gregarious, shrugging hero, that you almost forget how handsome he is. For his underlying humanity and grace, Joe is right up there with Emma Thompson's Oscar-wnning Margaret Schlegel in Howard's End.

This is a wonderful film. Most of you won't find it in your local cineplexes, but if you have to, it is worth taking a train to see.