Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Station Agent -- Dealing with loneliness

Director: Thomas McCarthy, 2003.

When was the last time you saw a film whose lead character was a dwarf? Other than Snow White (although there the dwarves were supporting characters)? It may be hard to remember. But Peter Dinklage (Death at a Funeral) does so here as the dwarf Finbar McBride and gives an outstanding performance.

Fin is a reserved man who loves trains and works with his friend Henry in a model train store. His life is quiet and ordered. But when Henry dies unexpectedly one day, Fin's life is thrust into change. His job is gone and he inherits a train depot in rural Newfoundland, New Jersey, a place not far from the middle of nowhere. This is fine since Fin wants to be alone, living a life of solitude.

His desire for isolation is not surprising. He is visibly different from those around due to his height. And he feels the brunt of the prying eyes and the barbed comments, the references to Snow White. In one tender and sensitive scene, Fin is getting drunk on his own in a tavern when he stands on the bar, drawing everyone's attention to himself, and tells them to take a good look at him.

Fin says to another character, "It's funny how people see me and treat me, since I'm really just a simple, boring person." This raises the issue of how we view people who are different from us. Do we see the appearance or the substance? Are we looking at a person, the human inside the skin, or at a perception? Too often, we see others who stand out as different and then put them down, ridiculing or mocking them. It may make us feel bigger or better than them, but it does not treat them with the love or respect they deserve. And it actually makes us smaller and uglier people.

Fin may have been small of stature but he was a real person with genuine feelings. He distanced himself from others who only saw his height and did not seek to know the person within. Having lost perhaps his only true friend, Fin came to Newfoundland to escape the looks and stares. He thinks he does not need a friend. He doesn't know he is actually lonely and in need of a genuine relationship.

However, Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a garrulous Cuban parks his father's vending van outside the train depot each day to sell coffee and food. Joe is lonely, too, and he is ready to push himself into Fin's life. He wants to talk to, even walk with him, and won't take no for an answer. He is like a puppy dog that keeps coming back to his owner even when he is not wanted. He simply cannot understand why Fin would want to be a recluse. this mix, McCarthy adds Olivia (Patrica Clarkson, Lars and the Real Girl), a clumsy artist who is separated from a controlling husband and who has secrets that keep her from opening up in friendship. This weird and quirky trio who have nothing in common become friends, drawn to Fin and his love of trains even though Fin wants no one around.

This is McCarthy's first film. He wrote and directed it on a shoe-string budget yet crafted a poignant and nuanced character study. He develops a wonderfully subdued tone and mood, not worrying much about the plot. The film is centered on these three characters, and it works thanks to their marvellous performances. Dinklage, especially, does excellent work with so few lines that must rely on facial expressions and mannerisms, his later film, The Visitor, McCarthy focuses on loneliness and relationships. At first Fin wants no one. He wants his books, his trains, and to be left alone. But humans are social creatures, needing interactions with others (Gen. 2:18). We were made to be with people, to be relational. The Bible tells us that friends stick closer than brothers (Prov. 18:24) and love us at all times (Prov. 17:17).

Even when the friendship breaks and Fin returns to his solitude, McCarthy shows us how it has changed Fin. He no longer can live without people. He is troubled by the pain experienced by his friend, Olivia. When he is rebuffed by her, as he had rebuffed others earlier, he begins to feel the loneliness that he had lived with.

Indeed, loneliness is the central theme that ties this film together. Each of the three characters has their own experience of loneliness, dealing with it differently. Fin protects his heart from hurt by shutting it away and then resigns himself to this self-imposed loneliness. No pain but no relationship. No opportunity for real growth. Joe's overly friendly approach to others has pushed them away from him, causing him to lose what he so desperately wants. A friendly man, he remains friendless. And Olivia is struggling with loss and her broken marital relationship has her questioning herself. She retreats into her art, not letting anyone in.

McCarthy makes it clear that relationships are what paint color into life and bring vibrancy to lives. Olivia's paintings were colorful but slightly askew, not enough to be considered surreal or symbolic but enough to be odd and awkward. Lives can be like that, too, when friendships and relationships are missing.

Two minor characters exemplify the power of friendships. Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a black elementary schoolkid who loves trains, befriends Fin and invites him to speak in front of her class. This invitation is akin to being given a death warrant, it sparks that kind of fear in Fin's heart. It would open him up to children, who say the funniest and meanest things. Then there is the librarian, Emily (Michelle Williams), who has a secret of her own and no friend to help her. As Fin warms up and opens his heart to others, we see the influence that others have on him and he on them. We grow in personal development and character as we allow others to share our lives.

There are times for retreat from others. Fin shows us the restorative power of being alone, walking and meditating on life. But these allow us to return to our relationships empowered and refreshed, ready to enjoy them more. McCarthy's debut film is a worthy award-winner and joyous tale of intersecting lives becoming transformative friends.

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

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