Josh Sternfeld’s morose Winter Solstice tells the story of a family trying to maintain cohesion in the aftermath of tragedy, yet its stripped-down, emotionally detached aesthetic is so reserved that it quickly devolves into an affectedly distraught pose. Using a recurring acoustic guitar to score its numerous montages of solitary people going about their mundane everyday routines, and regularly lingering a few seconds longer than necessary on unhappy characters at the end of scenes (as if determined to capture an extra smidgeon of their misery), Sternfeld’s debut depicts the Winters’s tension-laced existence with an unfussy eye and a concentration on conversations’ uncomfortable silences. Though his framing sharply plays up the oppressive isolation of its protagonists, his studiously composed, overly mannered film (similar to The Ice Storm, Ordinary People, and countless other glum middle-class family dramas) presses too hard in attempting to convey a spirit of sadness. And when matched with the script’s pretentious minimalism, such delicately constructed restraint—the film determined to navigate its maudlin, unstable emotional terrain as if on tiptoes—radiates airless artificiality.
Suburban landscaper Jim (Anthony LaPaglia) shares a melancholy life with sons Gabe (Aaron Stanford) and Pete (Mark Webber), the elephant in their living room being the absence of the wife/mother who died five years earlier. Irreparably damaged by this loss, all three men have retreated into themselves, but the alienation they use as a shield is undone by two concurrent developments: Gabe’s decision to move to Tampa, and the arrival of Molly Ripkin (Allison Janney), a paralegal and aspiring artist house-sitting for a friend in the neighborhood. Sternfeld mixes tender images of transient happiness—such as Gabe and girlfriend Stacey frolicking at sunset—with clunky climactic shots of budding flowers, and his uneven storytelling is marred by his wasting of Janney (in the thankless role of Jim’s bland love interest) and the clumsy teacher-student rapport between Pete (a disinterested pupil who must once again attend summer school) and Ron Livingston’s Mr. Bricker.
Such inelegance, however, is thankfully offset by a trio of finely calibrated performances that avoid hollow posturing. LaPaglia, conveying more from-the-gut frustration and pent-up depression than he could muster in The Guys, has a way of making his body appear encumbered by a burdensome weight, and an early scene in which he has to awkwardly interrupt Pete’s evening out with the boys to deliver a reprimand is a model of less-is-more subtlety. Nearly as proficient are Stanford and Webber, whose contentious but loving brotherly camaraderie has an unforced, natural authenticity. Yet compounding its directorial preciousness with eye-rolling symbolic conversations about gardens (which “fall apart pretty quickly, and you have to take care of them”) and Genghis Khan (whose death forced his conquering army into retreat), Sternfeld’s sullen Winter Solstice—named after the shortest day (and longest night) of the year—ultimately gets lost in its own self-conscious gloom.