Five years before the opening sequence of Winter Solstice, a low-budget family drama written and directed by Josh Sternfeld, a mother has been killed in an accident, leaving her husband and two sons to muddle on without her. Muddle on is really the best they can do, and while the father, Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia), continues a moderately successful landscape business in a suburban New Jersey town, blessed with a lake, his sons are barely functional zombies with a penchant for bad decisions.
Unlike last year's effervescent Garden State, Winter Solstice is too low-key for moments of high drama. Instead, it has a cheerless quality-dreary and dark as winter's shortest day. Some people will be put to sleep by its soporific pacing and pedestrian events. On the other hand, Sternfeld's excellent ear and eye are put to good use in a number of scenes that offer a kind of scrappy authority and even, on occasion, wry humor. Several of the latter are provided by Ron Livingston in the thankless role of Pete's history teacher.
Older son Gabe (Aaron Stanford) is hoarding every penny to escape to Florida while younger son Pete (Mark Webber), slightly deaf, withdraws into slothful retreat, and is so indifferent to his studies that it is touch-and-go whether he will ever graduate from high school.
Dad helplessly watches his children slide into ever-deepening misery and berates himself for not being able to save them. He has one consolation, though. Just down the block is a new neighbor, the lively Molly (Allison Janney), a frustrated jewelry designer, instantly attracted to the widower.
Although Winter Solstice never feels the urge to preach, the moral of this dimly lit, honest examination of life in the suburbs is to take what little pleasure life offers and try to recall that love is always possible under any circumstances. Still, audiences may not get too excited about devastated people who conduct their social lives at the local Dairy Queen.