Directed by – Tom McCarthy
Are You With Us? - The Station Agent
By Shalimar Sahota
August 27, 2009
Starring – Peter Dinklage (Fin McBride), Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris), Michelle Williams (Emily), Raven Goodwin (Cleo), Paul Benjamin (Henry), John Slattery (David)
Length – 89 minutes
Cert – 15 / R
The Station Agent is a low budget film from first time writer/director Tom McCarthy, which has a dwarf as the lead character. It's a miracle it was made at all.
Fin McBride (Dinklage) is a quiet, reclusive man with dwarfism. He has a passion for trains, working with his best friend Henry (Benjamin) in a model train shop. However, after Henry dies unexpectedly, Fin is informed that he's been left some property in Henry's will; an abandoned train depot. Fin decides to move into the depot since he's told there's nothing out there, and that's exactly what he wants, to start a new life and be left alone. Within a day he becomes mixed up in the lives of Joe (Cannavale), a chatty hot dog vendor who parks right outside his depot, and Olivia (Clarkson), an artist seperated from her husband.
And that's the story. There are no special effects in this film, no cars blowing up, no bare breasts on display... well, almost. It's essentially about three central characters. So how do you get people to see something like this in the fist place? Miramax didn't really do anything special when it came to marketing The Station Agent. They just let the quality of the film speak for itself, and the reviews and awards came rolling in.
Playing the major festivals and winning numerous awards, it proved to be a critical success. Winning a well-deserved BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay, it also took the Audience Award for Best Drama at the Sundance Film Festival 2003. Although it slots neatly into the drama genre, this is actually funnier than most so-called comedies, with Cannavale responsible for most of the humor. Along with The Iron Giant, it has one of the funniest "grace before meals" scenes, and the exuberance Joe shows in train chasing had me in hysterics.
We all have a tendency to stare at difference, be it a port wine stain, a facial burn or the occasional lack of limbs. Fin would certainly receive second looks, but he also has to cope with people making jokes about him, with one child asking him, "Where's Snow White?" Two people in the company of Joe stupidly remark on how he looks like Mini-Me. These moments stick out like movie clichés designed to make us feel more sympathetic towards Fin, and they work. That he has had to shield himself from disdain just to survive is what makes Fin so distant to others, often giving one word answers to people or ignoring them altogether. "I'm really just a simple, boring person," says Fin, and it's true. He doesn't do anything to seek attention, yet people and their problems find their way to him.
The clincher here is would the film still work even if the character Fin wasn't a dwarf? I believe it would, because Tom McCarthy's story really is that good, but the only problem, then, is that the film would lose a great actor in Dinklage, who is simply amazing to watch.
McCarthy's story isn't trying to send out a message about dwarfism. If anything, the themes to be found are loneliness and the friendships formed from it, since loneliness attracts loneliness (or so we're supposed to believe, but trust me, only in the movies). These are characters that for various reasons have become disconnected. Olivia is alone due to being separated from her husband, while Joe is merely bored with the lack of customers. They just happen to blend together. Clarkson's Olivia is somewhat clumsy and increasingly vulnerable, doing a few good deeds for Fin after nearly accidentally killing him. Cannavale plays Joe as mildly irritating, always chatty, with many questions, but never a complete nuisance. It's unusual that he prefers to hang out with those that don't fit his age bracket. Although both are secondary characters to Fin, you wouldn't mind seeing them in their own movies as lead characters.
What might turn people is the feeling that this looks like one of those "awards films" that might be boring, and given the story, it was an incredibly tough sell. The film opened in the US in October 2003 and although it never played on more than 200 screens, strong word-of-mouth kept people coming, as it endured a lengthy six-month run. With a $500,000 budget, it eventually took in $8.6 million worldwide, which may seem small, but then there aren't many films that can boast about making back 17 times their production budget!
Tom McCarthy had a crack at writing and directing once again with The Visitor, which was also blessed with awards, and he interestingly shares a story credit for Pixar's Up. The theme of loneliness once again crops up in both films. He still acts, and will soon be seen in 2012 and The Lovely Bones. Peter Dinklage was more recently seen in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Cannavale and Clarkson still find plenty of work, both hopefully appearing in four films before the year is out.
The Station Agent is a great, engaging story, and shows how risky ventures like this can pay off, and will continue to be there so long as audiences take more chances. It's totally bold filmmaking like this that has resulted in one of the best dramedies ever.