Cinema is first and foremost a visual medium: It relies on things that can be shown graphically. Among the many things that do come off well in a visual medium: Light, color, movement, facial expressions, gestures, elaborate sets and costumes, and interesting locales. Among the things that don't: Deeply repressed characters who lack the ability to display their internal conflicts in any external way. Such as, for instance, the characters in Winter Solstice, a plodding family drama about a bitter New Jersey widower (Anthony LaPaglia) and his resentful sons. They're going through a crisis, as evidenced by the film's title (the family name is Winters, and the winter solstice marks the longest night of the year... get it?), but they rarely reveal it in any way the film can access. The result is a numbing void, and a long, frustrating wait for something to happen.
It's not like the characters' lives are drama-free. LaPaglia's fed-up older son (Aaron Stanford) is secretly planning an abrupt move to Florida, even though it means abandoning his girlfriend as well as his family. The younger son (Mark Webber) is failing high school through sheer lack of interest or effort. Meanwhile, a new neighbor (The West Wing's Allison Janney) represents an obvious love interest for LaPaglia, who's grimly trying to hold his family together with growls and glares. Still, this all emerges over an hour and a half of sparse, vague dialogue that trickles out in disconsolate mumbles, occasionally backed by muted, folky guitar. Most of the scenes begin and end in awkward, parched silence: In one typically uncomfortable sequence, Webber tries to trade a newspaper with no sports section for a more complete one held by his summer-school teacher, who asks that he be allowed to finish reading an article. Webber stands mutely and uncomfortably, watching the teacher read for an excruciating length of time. Eventually, he gets the paper. Like much of the movie, this never becomes particularly relevant. It's just another painfully barren exchange between people with nothing to say to each other.
Even when the characters do talk, it can be hard to make out their halfhearted words, and because they speak as though their lines don't actually matter, it's hard to care. When, at long last, LaPaglia snaps and starts yelling, it's more a relief than a shock. But the moment is brief, and LaPaglia later apologizes. He shouldn't be sorry. It's the first (and last) indication that anyone besides first-time writer-director Josh Sternfeld is actually emotionally invested in the film's events.