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Happy Twentieth Anniversary, “The Station Agent!”

Twenty years ago today, Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent was released.

Fin is a quiet bachelor with dwarfism living in Hoboken, New Jersey. He works away from the public eye in the back room of a model train hobby shop owned by his only friend, Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin). Belittled, photographed, and subjected to ignorant questions because of his height, Fin keeps to himself and uses his love of trains as a protective bubble against adversity and to avoid talking with people. However, Fin’s comfortable way of life is upended when Henry suddenly dies, and the hobby shop closes. Henry bequeaths to Fin an abandoned train depot in rural Newfoundland, New Jersey. Here he lives a bare bones, hermit-like existence, lacking essentials like electricity. As Fin becomes more reclusive, his new neighbors try to disrupt his isolated lifestyle.

Adjacent to Fin’s new residence, Joe (Bobby Cannavale) operates his sick father’s roadside food truck while the father recuperates. Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who lives further down the railway, is an artist coping with the death of her son and her tumultuous marriage. Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a curious girl, shares Fin’s interest in trains and follows him around, asking questions and trying to convince him to speak to her class about trains. Despite having little commonalities, these characters are united by their shared loneliness, which ultimately leads to mutual growth and improvement.

What draws me most to this film is its balance between simplicity and depth. On the one hand, the film features simple characters trying to lead normal lives, and this is reinforced by various film elements. The cinematography predominantly consists of wide shots of Newfoundland’s industrial ruins and old railway tracks, highlighting the idea of unrealized potential. The dialogue emphasizes the awkward silences in everyday conversations, avoiding overly dramatic monologues. The soundtrack features humble Americana with steel string guitars instead of a John Williams film score.

On the other hand, the movie tackles the weighty subject of discovering purpose and joy in life while doing so in a lighthearted and unassuming manner. At the start of the movie, Fin is satisfied with his one friend and one hobby and makes no effort to move beyond his sheltered and fragile way of life. Fin doesn’t ruminate on life’s meaning. He simply wants to be left alone to his routine like a train keeping to its daily route. Yet, his constrained lifestyle limits what he can do and makes him miserable. Even his train hobby is limited by it–he only observes trains from a distance and has never actually ridden on one. Only when he befriends his neighbors does he actively pursue trains and learn to share his passion with someone besides himself.