The plot in Winter Solstice is more of a subplot, never mind a feature length movie. And that's one of the many problems in writer/director Josh Sternfeld's sluggish account of a New Jersey family under stress.
Anthony LaPaglia plays Jim Winters, a widower living with his two sons, Gabe (Aaron Stanford), a hard-working young man; and Pete (Mark Webber), a teenager who can't get his act together. The three are a tight unit, but the bond between them strains when Gabe suddenly announces he's moving to Florida and Pete faces yet another stint at summer school.
Also thrown into the mix is a new neighbor, a fortysomething single played by Allison Janney, whom Jim, still living with the memory of his dead wife, gets to know better; and Pete's with-it summer school teacher (a misused Ron Livingston), who appears to have wandered in from the set of Boston Public.
Stuck in the same sleepy town -- Jim refers to the Dairy Queen as the town's "community center" -- the talented cast acts as if they're stuck in a 93-minute-long detention. The minimalist dialogue is supposed to show that communication is both understood and hard to come by in the Winters' household, but Sternfeld overstresses this awkward balance -- Jim can speak to his sons casually, but not when serious matters arise; Gabe's parting with his Liv Tyler clone of a girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) is more difficult than expected; Pete can't talk to anybody -- so the movie feels tiresome within 30 minutes. No one in this town appears comfortable making more than a few terse comments. You can certainly understand why Gabe wants to bolt for the sunnier climes of Florida, even though he doesn't have a plan.
Sternfeld is also adrift. The last couple of years have seen an influx of movies mixed with small-town despair and youthful boredom (Garden State, All the Real Girls, Raising Victor Vargas, etc.). Regardless of quality, those movies had a distinctive style, a narrative viewpoint. Sternfeld's choice is to do nothing. He incorrectly assumes that the small-town locale (we get lots of shots of that) and the characters' world-weary gloominess can coast the movie toward respectability and serve as an explanation to everyone's problems, when its "this is real life" feel is really obvious, really grating, and really unoriginal. And it's a cop out, an easy way to justify an artistic style, while not committing effort to anything else. The case that we're supposed to observe what's onscreen is moot: We've seen the same material in umpteen other films, and we've learned everything about the characters during the first third of the movie.
I'm not suggesting that Sternfeld should employ the same razzle dazzle editing and camera work Zach Braff used in Garden State, but he has to justify why we should invest our time in Jim's family and their problems. What's onscreen doesn't help. From a distance, middle class woes may make for credible, authentic filmmaking. It's posing when little effort is invested into the concept.