Critics tend to call any new indie film the antithesis of a big Hollywood production, but Josh Sternfeld’s sensitive debut is perhaps the smallest of them all. Winter Solstice is a humble drama, modestly told, about a widowed landscaper and his two teenage sons. This is no tale of suburban pathos, but rather a dip in the subtle emotional currents of a family.
Sternfeld’s restrained film is remarkable for its refusal either to force or dress up its drama. When Jim notices the woman house-sitting next door, the story does not bake an instant romance, but rather an awkward, hesitant courtship, which climaxes with Jim opening up about his wife’s death. When son, Pete (a superb Mark Webber), shirks work, he doesn’t turn to drugs or hasty den sex; he hardens his mask of sullenness and dead stares, the teenager’s arsenal
Winter Solstice excels at the restrained dynamics of male relationships, too often slotted as stunted or destructive. Jim and his sons talk bluntly, and make up just as abruptly, with the quiet, unstated work of love amid loss (and, exactly once, the four-pat hug).The placid pacing and intimate scale almost evokes Ozu, but the film may be a little too quiet. The impression of heartfelt emotion, however, deepens upon reflection.