Winter Solstice and House of D (review)

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Confronting Tragedy

Why did the most successful marauding army in the history of the world, the Mongols, turn away from fresh, guaranteed conquest and head for home at the height of their plundering? “They found out their leader died,” high-school student Pete Winters says to his summer-school teacher, with an air of discovery that has nothing to do with the scholarly. He probably doesn’t realize it — Pete is even more sullen and withdrawn, and less self-aware, than most teenagers, though with good reason — but his insight comes from his own personal experience with spirit-crushing discouragement and despair.

Rudderless grief hangs like a shroud over Winter Solstice, the feature debut from writer/director Josh Sternfeld, a project that grew out of the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Lab, and was a hit at last year’s Tribeca and Hamptons International Film Festivals, and deservedly so. This is a wise, perceptive film about loss and recovery that makes no grandiose pronouncements or sweeping observations but recognizes that stages and steps and psychobabble aside, this is a very personal process that everyone muddles through in his or her own way.
And yet, there is plenty that’s identifiable to anyone who’s muddled through it. Within the context of a sharp storytelling framework, Sternfeld beautifully, sadly replicates that state of functional, low-level depression that makes you feel like a slow-motion pinball bouncing around the world, moving on automatic pilot and reacting more from instinct than volition. The Winters men — Pete (Mark Webber: Hollywood Ending, Boiler Room); his twentysomething brother, Gabe (Aaron Stanford: Spartan, Rick); and their dad, Jim (Anthony LaPaglia: Analyze That, The Guys) — are the Mongol army, conquered by sorrow, all zest for life driven out of them. The specter of a missing wife and mother is an uncommented upon but obvious presence — it’s a long way into the film before we discover why she isn’t there, but the reason for her absence doesn’t matter: these guys can’t get past it. This is a very quiet film about unspoken anger and resentment and anguish — it’s the kind of movie about which impatient moviegoers say, “Yeah, but nothing happens!” Everything that “happens” is emotional and internal, but Sternfeld and his extraordinary cast make it cinematic — the scene I simply cannot get out of my mind is one in which LaPaglia’s Jim is just washing the dinner dishes alone in the darkened kitchen of his unpretentious suburban New Jersey house. It perfectly captures that sensation of being a slow-motion pinball.

With its title that hints at how the sun is about to start shining on the Winters men again, Solstice isn’t just about the smallness of the getting through of every day, but also — perhaps seemingly paradoxically — about how sometimes tragedy can only be dealt with by making a big life change. Gabe, much to the consternation of his father, announces he’s moving to Florida, like, tomorrow. And Jim finds an unexpected new friend in Molly (Allison Janney: How to Deal, Finding Nemo), who moves into the neighborhood to housesit for a friend — she’s also dealing with something she doesn’t want to talk about except that it made her feel like she needed a “change of address.”

This isn’t the kind of thing that you could ever explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it, and Sternfeld knows this and so doesn’t try. He simply lets the experience speak for itself, and it does so with a soft steeliness that is unforgettable.

Burning down the house
Tragedy is confronted from both the lead-in and the aftermath in House of D, the writing and directorial debut of actor David Duchovny. This sly, often funny coming-of-age tale thwarts clichés of the genre by cloaking them in an aura that skirts the fantastical — while Winter Solstice grounds itself in an almost painful reality, like the precise mundanity of Jim’s suburban kitchen and the echoing empty hallways of a school in summertime, House of D finds truth in childhood memories in which the inevitable haze of time is magnified into stippled sharpness by unabated pain. But the emotion is honest, even if some of the details may be less than entirely factual.

Tom Warshaw (Duchovny: Connie and Carla, Full Frontal) is looking back, after all, three decades to the year he turned 13, and to the something horrible that happened that year that froze him in his tracks, kept him from becoming the man he thinks he should have been. Now, he lives in Paris and his own son is about to turn 13, and he’s ready to think about it all again. So we flash back to New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1970s, where Tommy (the absolutely delightful Anton Yelchin: Taken, Hearts in Atlantis) lives with his mother (Téa Leoni: Hollywood Ending, Jurassic Park III; yeah, Duchovny’s wife playing his character’s mother elicited a few snickers at the screening I attended, but the performances all around are so wonderful and so heartfelt that any weirdness is quickly forgotten). Mom is severely depressed, unable to bounce back from the death of Tommy’s father; Yelchin particularly shines in the scenes in which he becomes the adult of the little family, as when he counts out how many of his mother’s sleeping pills remain in the jar — has she taken too many? And there’s strain in the relationship Tommy has with his best friend, Pappass (Robin Williams: Robots, Noel), a mildly retarded middle-aged man with whom he works as a delivery boy — the surprisingly restrained Williams is close to a career best in the quiet scenes in which his childlike man faces the jealousy that comes with Tommy’s new interest in girls… like the fetching Melissa (played by Zelda Williams, Robin’s daughter — Duchovny may have gone the route of nepotism in his casting, but it serves the movie well; Zelda exudes a natural, real-kid charm).

The complexity and unusualness of Tommy’s life hints at the shape the tragedy to come will take, and while we’re dreading it, we’re also entranced by Tommy’s peculiar relationship with “Lady” (Erykah Badu: The Cider House Rules), an inmate at the Women’s House of Detention Tommy converses with only by shouting to her high-up window; she sees him down on the sidewalk only in the reflection of a piece of broken mirror. It’s the most unlikely aspect of the film, but the directness and the sincerity with which Duchovny plays it as a director, and with which Yelchin approaches it, with a maturity as an actor that is beyond that of his character, makes it go down easy. (The women of the House of D, and the setting of the film as a whole, are based on Duchovny’s experience as a child in the Village, lending a genuine ring of truth.)

But it is, ironically, the oddity of the surrogate parents Tommy has in Lady and Pappass that imprisons him for 30 years in his own House of D — their advice and influence is perhaps not the best to be had when disaster strikes — leaving him stuck at the moment when childhood is about to crash over into adolescence. It’s the framing story, of the grown Tom looking back at the past, that makes House of D so poignant, so able to transcend its clichés of mentorship and reluctance to give up childhood. By the time the adult Tom finishes explaining his extraordinary life story to his wife (Magali Amadei: Taxi, The Wedding Planner), who’d never heard the tale before, we’re as in love with him as she is becoming once again.

Winter Solstice
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language
official site | IMDB

House of D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for sexual and drug references, thematic elements and language
official site | IMDB

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