At its core, Thomas McCarthy‘s The Station Agent is about a guy who makes friends despite all his best efforts to live a life free of human interaction. Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) works in a model train store for his only friend, Henry (Paul Benjamin). After Henry dies, his will leaves Fin a dilapitated old train station in Newfoundland, New Jersey. This isolated location suits him just fine, since Fin would rather have as little to do with other people as possible. For him solitude is preferable to the curious and pitying looks that have followed him his whole life due to his dwarfism. Trains are his first and only love and a necessary escape from a taller world.
Solitude, however, is not his fate. The old station has a neighbor in the hot dog truck run by Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), an effusive Cuban who’s starved for human contact by his business’ remote location. His bonhomie is like a force of nature and, despite Fin’s best efforts to keep his distance, Joe becomes a regular part of his life as they take tentative baby steps toward friendship.
Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson) is a local artist recently separated from her husband after the death of their son. She also appears to be Joe’s only steady customer. She, too, starts to inch her way under Fin’s thick skin (despite nearly running him over with her car, twice).
Fin also crosses path with a young librarian (Michelle Williams), who reaches out to Fin in a time of trouble and a girl (Raven Goodwin) filled with curiosity about this new stranger in her neighborhood. There is something about Fin, with his tendency to speak in sentences of one word or less but with too much basic decency to shut people out, that makes him the perfect listener, and thus the perfect friend, even though he doesn’t want to be.
Almost everybody who recommended this film to me described it as “charming.” That always raises a red flag with me because “charming” can also be used to describe movies that are cloying and saccharine. I tend to watch such movies with a defiantly passive-aggressive attitude of “All right, go ahead and charm me, you son of a bitch.”
No such issues here, as The Station Agent will charm the socks of anybody who opens themselves up just a little to this movie and its vividly etched, three-dimensional characters. All three leads give performances of irresistible depth. Patricia Clarkson’s turn as Olivia deserves special attention for its layers if guarded vulnerability. Dinklage is an expressive and subtle actor whose career should not be confined to roles written specifically for little people. Cannavale takes a role that could have been an annoying caricature and makes him into the kind of person I’d want to have around when I feel tempted to shut myself off from the world, someone whose relentless gregariousness will not be denied.
Another way of describing this film is as a meditation on the inevitability of community, how we humans often tend to make contact and form relationships not matter what obstacles we throw up in our own way. The Station Agent is a truly optimistic movie whose happy ending is as hard-earned as it is truthful.