-By Kevin Lally

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Winner of the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, The Station Agent is a small, character-driven drama whose appeal stems largely from its lead performers, perhaps the unlikeliest movie trio of the fall season. Actor-turned-director Tom McCarthy's first feature is especially tailored as a showcase for Peter Dinklage, a dwarf actor with a self-assured screen presence and a surprisingly resonant voice. Also lending her usual fascination is indie staple Patricia Clarkson (Far From Heaven, "Six Feet Under"), who won a special award for this and two other performances at Sundance 2003.

Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, the co-owner of a model train shop in Hoboken, New Jersey. When his older partner dies, Fin inherits an abandoned train station in the desolate wilds of Newfoundland, NJ, which soon becomes his home. A loner who deeply resents the stares and cruel jokes of strangers, Fin welcomes his isolated new digs, but his quest for solitude is foiled by two local busybodies. Joe (Bobby Cannavale of TV's "Third Watch"), who daily mans his ailing father's refreshment truck parked near the depot, is a genial extrovert who can't resist chatting up his new neighbor. And in the ultimate "meet cute," aspiring painter Olivia (Clarkson) nearly hits Fin with her SUV, not once but twice. Mortified, Olivia shows up at Fin's door with an alcoholic peace offering and begins a tentative friendship. But Olivia has her own demons--the accidental death two years ago of her young child and the subsequent collapse of her marriage. A few subsidiary characters also enter the picture--Cleo (Raven Goodwin), an awkward young black girl who peppers Fin with questions, and Emily (Michelle Williams), the cute local librarian who finds the dwarf exotically attractive.

Affable Joe insinuates himself into Fin's life by adopting the dwarf's fascination with train-spotting and walking the rails, and helps promote the bond between Fin and the almost equally private Olivia. But a visit by Olivia's angry husband drives a wedge through the trio, leading to some messy emotional breakdowns.

McCarthy, who wrote the screenplay, deserves credit for creating characters who are out of the mainstream and struggling with emotional trauma and pain (though Joe's admirable devotion to his sick father seems to be the only thing holding him back from a thriving social life). But, engaging as the actors are, after a while The Station Agent begins to suffer from its own insularity--the movie feels underpopulated. We know that Fin and Olivia and Joe will eventually connect, then fall apart before they connect again.

Fortunately, the actors make the material seem more substantial than it really is. Dinklage has a solid, dignified demeanor, and makes us feel his anger at a world that's constantly condescending and treating him, however innocently, as a freak. Clarkson, who's also excellent in the upcoming Sundance drama Pieces of April, brings layers of complexity to Olivia, a vivacious woman whose personal tragedy has spawned a self-imposed, self-destructive exile. With his warmth and eagerness, Cannavale takes a potentially annoying character and makes him downright irresistible.

Like many a Sundance film, The Station Agent is something less than its festival buzz, but it's an often-gratifying vehicle for several likeable and talented actors.

--Kevin Lally

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