Released to a small number of theatres in 2003, The Station Agent was the writing and directing debut of actor Thomas McCarthy (who does not feature in the film himself, already showing a difference from a lot of actors turned writer-director.) Since then, he’s had a couple of other under-the-radar films (The Visitor and Win Win), and shared a writing credit on Up, which I have to admit I’ve actually heard of.
The Station Agent has that independent film “feel” to it. It has a small cast of actors with a few that are recognizable, but not generally considered headliners. It’s ostensibly a comedy-drama, but doesn’t really go deep into either direction. It’s a slice-of-life film centered around a protagonist who doesn’t quite fit in with every day life. In this case, that protagonist is dwarf Finbar McBride, played by Peter Dinklage (who would go on to critical acclaim for his role Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.) Fin is a railroad enthusiast who keeps to himself; between alternately being stared at or overlooked in the big city, it’s easy to get the sense that he just wants to be ignored on his own terms. When his only friend dies, the friend leaves him a parcel of land out in Newfoundland, New Jersey, with an abandoned train depot. Fin moves in, and finds himself having to adapt to life in the rural community.
Home, cluttered slightly decrepit home.
Fin expects to just carry on with his deliberate isolation, but finds that people don’t ignore him as much in the smaller town. Part of it is the same “Hey, look at the little person!” attitude that bothered him in the big city (though he’s understanding about it when it’s coming from a friendly kid played by Raven Goodwin), but a lot of it also just seems to be “Hey, it’s someone new!” Directly outside of his depot is a mobile coffee cart, and the manager, Joe (Bobby Cannavale) aggressively befriends Fin. Joe is enthusiastic about everything and seems to want to be everybody’s friend, and he quickly becomes Fin’s shadow on his trainspotting, despite Fin’s initial reluctance for company. Fin also becomes friends with a local painter named Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) after she nearly runs him over twice in one day. Olivia is a divorcee who lost her son, and she carries more emotional baggage than anyone else in the film; what plot there is mostly has to do with her coping with her past. This trio forms the main focus of the film, with the rest of the town mostly irrelevant to the group, except for the town librarian (Michelle Williams) who Fin is surprised to find seems attracted to him.
Joe’s attitude would be “don’t question it, just go with it.” Joe’s right.
There’s not a lot of “story” to the film, and it’s hard to classify as anything other than “slice of life”. There are comedic elements, but it’s a very dry comedy and doesn’t really attempt laugh out loud moments — there are a few, but mostly it’s just watching Peter Dinklage’s wry expressions (usually at something that Joe says or does). It also doesn’t try to be very dramatic — again, there’s a scene or two, mostly to do with Patricia Clarkson’s character (and Clarkson does a great job of showing a woman who is trying not to be a nervous wreck), but it’s not a huge element of the film. Mostly it’s just two people who are used to being isolated adapting to the realization that they don’t have to be, at the instigation of a third character who doesn’t even comprehend the concept of wanting to be left alone. In a roundabout way, Joe is the “hero” of the piece despite not being the focal character, and it wouldn’t work without Bobby Cannavale’s cheerfully oblivious portrayal.
On one level, there’s not a lot to this film. It doesn’t try to be funny, it doesn’t try to be dramatic… it doesn’t really try to be anything, other than just to be. There’s a certain sense of abruptness to the ending, because everything is played so low-key that it’s possible to not realize you’re in the epilogue of the movie. And yet, it’s a charming film in its own way. These are likeable characters, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with any of their personal issues, or present itself as some sort of triumph over adversity. They start out flawed characters, they end up flawed characters. But The Station Agent remains a likeable film despite not having any grand sense of purpose. It’s not for everybody — in fact, I’d say it’s probably only for a small portion of the movie going public — but it’s a decent film.