Watching The Station Agent never fails to make me glad, because it begins with characters who want absolutely nothing to do with each other and finds a genuine and honest way to make them connect.
Peter Dinklage, in his breakthrough role, is the title character, whose name is Finbar McBride. Trains are Finn's curious passion. Finn is also a dwarf. He believes his height has isolated him from other people, and has come to accept solitary days and nights. In fact, Finn is often around people, but keeps himself separated, even from the man he works with, who owns a model-train store in Hoboken. One day the man drops dead, and when Finn pushes open the door that always keeps the pair separated, he steps into the world that has long shunned him and, he expects, always will.
The old shop owner has left something in his will for Finn, a few acres of land alongside railroad tracks in rural New Jersey. ("There's nothing there," the probate attorney tells Finn. "I mean, no-thing.") To Finn, it sounds perfect. He can spend his days and nights imagining a time before air travel and cell phones, pretending it still exists.
Finn just wants to be left alone, and the way Dinklage plays him, it's clear he means it. Finn isn't angry or even particularly disillusioned about life; he just wants to do it on his own terms.
He wakes up on his first morning to find there actually is something there in the allegedly empty countryside: an incongruously placed food truck that specializes in Cuban coffee. The owner of the food truck is ill, and his son Joe (Bobby Cannavale) has taken over.
Joe is tall, gregarious and energetic, everything Finn is not. Joe is also unusually needy, and as soon as he sees Finn, he thinks not about the stranger's height but of his potential as a friend. Finn has no interest.
The man really only wants to be left alone, to fend for himself by doing things like walking a mile and a half to the nearest convenience store. Along the way, he's nearly run over by Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a woman who seems absent-minded but, it turns out, is generally focused on the death of her small son two years earlier. If she appears not to be paying attention to things like talking and driving, it's because she's not -- she is thinking about her boy and all she has lost.
Like Finn, she has chosen isolation over the pain of heartache and rejection. She is still in love with her ex-husband, a man who has decided to do what she cannot and has moved on with his life.
Finn and Olivia do not want company. They do not want friendship. Joe, on the other hand, does, and he has a hard time taking no for an answer.
"He does love life," Olivia finally admits one day while watching Joe. Finn nods in agreement.
By this time, friendship has snuck up on them, and it continues to do so in unexpected ways. There's the local librarian (Michelle Williams), who has her own secrets and despair. There's Cleo (Ravin Goodwin), a stout little girl whose skin color leaves her out of the running when it comes to making friends at school.
The Station Agent is about how they all become friends, especially Finn, Olivia and Joe, and how their personal anguish is easier to bear when it's shared -- and easier to wound when it flashes its teeth.
It's a movie that takes great pleasure out of presenting simple moments, like Finn, Olivia and Joe on a railroad bridge eating beef jerky. That particular scene is a little gem because it is in love with its characters but doesn't brag about it; near the end of the scene, Olivia takes a piece of jerky, chews on it and says, "Good jerky," and everyone, including the audience, is delighted by her tiny discovery.
The Station Agent is about people who derive pleasure from doing things like sitting on park benches, having small dinners on a warm summer night, and walking through woods filled with the sounds of summer insects. It is not, in other words, an action-driven film.
But it is, I think, one of the most honest and affecting portrayals of real friendship that I've ever seen in a movie -- not phony movie friendship where people sharply accuse each other of betrayals only to find it has all been a misunderstanding as the music swells and the camera spins. Real friendship is both simpler and more complex than that. It is founded upon the idea that people who have nothing much in common decide they like each other, and are willing to accept each others' weaknesses and insecurities.
The Station Agent has real humor, too, derived from the simple observations of the way people actually are. Joe's desperate neediness, Finn's terse answers, Olivia's wounded heart, Cleo's simplicity all stand out because they're presented so matter-of-factly. The characters talk to each other the way they might in real life: hesitantly, uncertainly, warily. Even the big dramatic moment is treated without flash, rather as an act of simple friendship.
Toward the end of the movie, Olivia's anguish and pain have become too much for her to bear and she lashes out at Finn in a moment that feels both shocking and unfair. He does what Finn has always done with rejection: He abides by it. But he surprises himself by discovering that he needs her friendship, that he misses her when she is gone, the way he does Joe.
The Station Agent is similarly surprising, because when the movie is over, we miss spending time with these people. They are filled with sadness and disappointment, but opening themselves up to each other makes them realize that although they might never have the lives they'd like, the unexpected relationships they forge make the lives they do have more bearable.
The first time I saw The Station Agent, on an airplane, I immediately went back and started it again. It's the cinematic equivalent of spending a long, leisurely summer evening with a best friend; it's just too hard to say goodbye.