The Basics: The Winter household is a manly bastion of domestic harmony. They've got no choice. Landscaper Jim and his two almost-grown sons are gruff souls living together in the New Jersey suburbs, doing the things they need to do in order to get by. Somebody's got to bread the pork chops and take out the trash and wash the clothes.
They are obviously wounded and simply holding on, although first-time writer-director Josh Sternfeld doesn't reveal why until late in the story. He sets a melancholy mood in motion rather than a plot, with emotions carried by musical riffs over images rather than by dialogue. These are guys living together, after all, and sometimes all they manage to do is grunt at each other.
The Catch: In a short, clipped speech almost devoid of details and emotion, Jim (Anthony LaPaglia) eventually lets it drop that five years earlier his wife was killed in a car accident, and it's readily apparent that Gabe (Aaron Stanford) has been sticking around after high school to help his dad with Pete (Mark Webber), who was in the car with his mom and was set back emotionally by the crash. The family is at a stage of coping where they are scruffy around the edges '- they all could use a good shampoo '- but they're otherwise doing okay. Anything that changes their hobbled status quo, however, is a big threat.
Pete is doing the best he can to maintain their situation by staying in high school. He's distracted and won't pass his classes, even though he's quite capable of handling the work. Webber plays the part with a distracted air that almost comes off as disdainful. He looks like he never takes anything seriously, and yet is ready to explode at the same time.
Gabe, however, is making plans. He wants to take off for Florida and start a new life for himself, the desire for which must have been building up in him since the crash. But we don't really know that, because he doesn't have much dialogue to get across the complicated nature of these feelings or to explain why he doesn't discuss them with his father until he's already made his decision. But Stanford is gifted enough to convey some of the angst with just a determined look.
Why It's Good: As Jim, on the other hand, LaPaglia is completely poker faced. He even loses his cool and yells at the boys without revealing any emotion. Stout and stern, he merely unleashes a string of invectives. Nevertheless, he is the most humanly painted of the trio. Working with nature, he understands the rhythms of life, and he treats his boys like growing plants. They need food and water and love, but most of all they need the space to grow. LaPaglia is able to communicate that with a subtle gentleness in the way he touches the boys and looks at them.
Why It's Not: Women exist here only on the periphery. Gabe has a girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan, who looks like a slightly younger Liv Tyler), but she only flits in for brief scenes. Molly Ripken (Allison Janney) moves in down the street and tries to make friends, but the boys aren't quite ready for a new love in Jim's life. Their mother is sanctified so much that nobody even mentions her name or refers to the fact that she is gone. You get the sense that even when she was alive, the Winter house was still a house of men, and that leaves these characters ill-equipped to convey the kind of drama that an audience needs to stay connected.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you feel mournful
Stars: Anthony LaPaglia, Aaron Stanford, Mark Webber, Allison Janney
Director/screenwriter: Josh Sternfeld
Producers: John Limotte, Doug Bernheim
Release date: April 8 in New York and Los Angeles, wider later
Distributor: Paramount Classics