A lot of times, what happens in our world after a death isn't especially dramatic. A lot of times, it's actually kind of dull.
That's not to diminish the difficulty and importance of grieving, but to recognize that life in the wake of a tragedy is a never-ending adjustment that seldom erupts into Oscar-caliber outbursts. People who are truly shattered don't often have the energy to indulge in Hollywood-style histrionics and epiphanies; they're too busy trying to remember how to open the cereal.
These are the people who inhabit ''Winter Solstice."
First there is Jim (Anthony LaPaglia), who tends to his New Jersey landscaping business dutifully but in a fog, the way one makes arrangements at a funeral home. He's conscious of the critical role that maintenance plays in his life: ''Gardens fall apart very quickly," he says. ''You really have to take care of them." And it's clear that he's not just talking mulch.
Jim's two teenage sons are Gabe (Aaron Stanford), a brooding manual laborer, and Pete (Mark Webber), a bright but failing high school student who likes to pick fights. Both live at home, but Gabe has his eye on the door. He wants a fresh start in Florida, which makes one wonder what's so terrible about where he is.
Gabe has a loyal girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) and a father who doesn't ask a whole lot of him in the scheme of things.
There's the common generational disconnect about chores and respect, but otherwise Jim is almost too laid back, connecting with his sons so infrequently that it's as if the men are already living in different states.
Eventually it becomes obvious that the family's dysfunction is less about what's happening among them than it is about a force no longer there -- the wife and mother who used to be their Genghis Khan (the film's leadership comparison, not mine).
The less than shocking details of her absence will be revealed in time, but it's not time that passes quickly or with many moments for a viewer to grab onto. First-time feature director Josh Sternfeld's script prefers to leave most things unsaid; it's a fine philosophy except that Sternfeld isn't yet strong enough as a filmmaker to be true to it.
''Winter Solstice" is ultimately undercut by its fictional elements and its flat characters. It isn't raw enough to convey a true slice of life, and its talented actors can't get any traction playing people who have one foot in cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian's stylized visual reality and the other in a standard made-for-TV movie, minus the plot.
Allison Janney seems particularly at sea as Molly, the loosely sketched housesitter/artisan who moves into Jim's neighborhood and quickly becomes his guide to rejoining the living. Her easy energy should be a welcome relief, but instead it just gives the film more of an identity crisis.
Is this a movie for viewers who don't need to be dazzled, or even moved along at a comfortable pace? Or is it a movie that assumes that its audience requires the safety of forced humor and contrived situations?
Both, it appears. And that's why it isn't as good as it could be.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.