When you're a dwarf, everyone looks down on you. At least that's what Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) seems to think through most of The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy's quietly charming film about acceptance and friendship and the strange allure of freight trains. A dwarf himself, Finbar -- or Fin, as he prefers to be called -- has always received his share of rude remarks. "Hey, where's Snow White?" says a kid he passes on the street. But just as hard to take are the stares and giggles and checkout girls who don't notice him standing there behind the cash register. No wonder Fin is ready to pack his bags and move on when he learns that he's inherited a train depot in aptly named Newfoundland, New Jersey. Far from the madding crowd, this'll give him a chance to be alone and to indulge his love for the iron horse.
It doesn't work out that way, of course. Newfoundland, though far from the madding crowd, turns out to be fairly jam-packed with people who -- at first, anyway -- need Fin more than he needs them. There's Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a chatty hot dog vendor with a lot of time on his hands and nobody to kill it with. There's Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a middle-aged woman who still hasn't gotten over her son's death two years ago. There's Cleo (Michelle Williams), who works at the library and still hasn't told her loser boyfriend she's pregnant. And there's Emily (Raven Goodwin), a middle school child who, when she first meets Fin, asks him what grade he's in. Partly because of its pitch-perfect performances, the movie manages to seem both pleasantly quirky and utterly real. The walls of Fin's reticence start to melt.
Then they harden again, then melt again. McCarthy, who both wrote and directed the movie, didn't try to build a Hollywood plot structure, with all the nuts and bolts in place. And there are moments, particularly early on, when we're not sure exactly where everything's heading, a surprisingly good feeling, given how locked-in most scripts are these days. But you slowly realize that the movie's about Fin finally finding a place in the world. Dinklage, who has a memorably funny bit in Elf as a children's-book writer who gets called a dwarf one too many times by the guy in the weird green suit, gets a lot of mileage out of relatively few lines of dialogue. "I'm actually just a simple, boring person," Fin tells Olivia, who knows better but lets it go.