Tom McCarthy's "The Station Agent" is the sort of thing usually described as "a little movie" — it has no car chases, lavish spectacle, urban cityscapes or A-list stars, and its drama revolves more around quiet conversations than eyebrow-raising revelations. But its pleasures are by no means small — it's the story, earth-shaking in its own way, of three people who quietly become essential to each other.
McCarthy is himself an actor (seen on a number of television series, including "Boston Public" and "Law & Order"), so it's no surprise that his film is a celebration of fine character acting, by three performers who haven't previously received the kind of showcase they deserve. Peter Dinklage, who has the blue eyes and flinty handsomeness of the young Aidan Quinn, is Fin, a train-loving dwarf who arrives in a small New Jersey town with the hopes of being left alone. Patricia Clarkson ("Far from Heaven") is Olivia, an artist grieving the loss of her son. And Bobby Cannavale (best known for the TV series "Oz") is Joe, a friendly hot-dog vendor seeking ears for his endless string of chat.
And that's about it; train rails are walked on, arguments endured and stories shared by these three lonely souls, and by the end, the film becomes as lovely a definition of friendship as you'll ever see. And its setting becomes a fourth character: the deserted, dusty train depot in which Fin lives. The building, like Fin himself, is small but unshakable, and the tracks extend beyond it in an unending line, toward the world that Fin is escaping. He's accustomed to how the world perceives him ("I don't like bars very much," he tells Joe, and you can hear years of unforgotten pain in his voice), and now he's found the perfect home: a tiny station, a nowhere town, a track where trains don't run.
But his plans of solitude quickly go awry; Olivia, a distracted driver, nearly runs him down in her SUV; Joe, whose mobile hot-dog stand is located just outside the depot, practically begs him for friendship. I'm not going out, Fin tells him, exasperated. "If you do go out," counters Joe, eyes like an enormous puppy, "can I come?" Finally, they do spend some time together. "That was fun, right?" says Joe, at its conclusion.
McCarthy, clearly and charmingly enamoured with his cast, lets each of them have their moments.
Dinklage, who barely cracks a smile for much of the movie, shows us the shell this man has built around himself — and, in glimpses, the mania for trains that moves him. Clarkson, thin and fragile as a wineglass, is gentle and haunted as a woman unsure of how to go on with her life. Cannavale, a genial regular-guy, provides the spice in the mix; his incessant questions and borderline-annoying optimism bring the film its warm humor. And McCarthy provides just enough additional characters (including Raven Goodwin, from "Lovely and Amazing" as a local grade-school girl who befriends Fin) to give a sense of the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone's business.
While many movies reintroduce us to the same old types, "The Station Agent" is an original — you've never seen these people on screen before, and it's a pleasure to make their acquaintance.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org