When his boss dies, diminutive model railway shop worker Fin McBride (Dinklage) inherits a disused railway depot in a sleepy provincial town. Although he tries to ignore friendly overtures from the curious local community, Fin finds himself slowly drawn into their odd, tragi-comic lives.
When it debuted last year at Sundance — the world’s most right-on festival — we feared a politically correct study of the harsh plight of the vertically challenged in patriarchal America. But, almost magically, Tom McCarthy’s sometimes hilarious, touching film is no such thing.
Drawing on all the requisite elements of modern US indie cinema (dreams, suburbia, isolation, Patricia Clarkson), The Station Agent is a small but sprawling comedy of manners that ignores the temptations of cheap melodrama to take us off the map to a place seldom visited by its peers.
A place, it must be said, where nothing much happens. But, like the community Fin (Dinklage) finds when he moves into his new home, McCarthy’s film is alive with personality and intrigue.
Sharply written and beautifully realised, these are characters with depth and feeling — oddballs, certainly, but warm and credible. There’s Joe (Oramas), the nosy Cuban hot dog man who runs a fast-food stall in the middle of nowhere. There’s Emily (Williams), the pretty librarian in lumber with her deadbeat boyfriend. There’s Cleo (Raven Goodwin), the curious little schoolgirl who desperately wants Fin to help with her show-and-tell.
But most of all there’s Olivia (Clarkson), the artist who harbours a fascination for Fin from the day she almost runs him over. The closest thing this film has to a love interest, Clarkson gives her best here: tough but vulnerable, teetering on breakdown but somehow reined in by her own survival instinct and distracted by the strange, steely pull of the surly Fin. Though it never reaches the surface, this muted love affair is one of the film’s many charms, another avenue left tantalisingly mysterious.
It would be a tough job for any actor to command such a light and quixotic patchwork but, in the lead, Dinklage proves himself a subtle actor and gifted comedian. Indeed, the part was initially written for a normal-sized actor, and it’s a measure of his talent that McCarthy had to tweak the script so little to suit him. Eschewing sentiment and never scared of size jokes, Dinklage’s Fin McBride is a regal, rude and enigmatic presence, his cool only ruffled in a bittersweet scene in which his height makes him comically ineffective in a boy-girl fight.
Happily, this is more than just a showcase for a first-time writer-director or an acting workshop for his cast. It’s The Station Agent’s meditation on the smaller things in life that make it such a big deal.
Ultimately this is a film about feelings, moments and things not said. Like Lost In Translation, its about what happens when people living in their own little worlds collide.