''Winter Passing" plays like two indie movies trapped in one film, and Zooey Deschanel is in the better of them. Will Ferrell is in the other one.
A quiet, minor-key drama of family resentments and the afterburn of fame, it's the first film written and directed by the gifted young playwright Adam Rapp (''Nocturne," ''Stone Cold Dead Serious"), who moves tentatively into this medium like he's sizing up a new house. There are intriguing actors and ideas here, but only occasionally do they combine with convincing force.
At its core, ''Winter Passing" is a character study of Reese (Deschanel), a glum and rootless young Manhattan actress wondering what to do about her inner numbness. Cocaine and impulsive sex don't make her feel anything; neither does slamming her hand in a drawer. Only a visit from a predatory book agent (Amy Madigan) rouses her to action.
Reese's father (Ed Harris), it turns out, is the legendarily reclusive American author Don Holden -- thud goes the J.D. Salinger reference -- and the agent dangles a big payday in front of the young woman if she'll return to Michigan and bring back a box of letters between Don and his wife, an equally well-known writer who committed suicide several years before. Reese didn't go to her mother's funeral and bristles at the reverence with which others invoke her father; fiercely protective of him, she still finds the whole ''Don Holden" thing pretty silly. But off she goes, mostly out of fear of what's happening to her in New York.
What she finds back home are three lives even more out of kilter than her own. Don, an alcoholic wraith, can barely motivate himself out of bed in the morning. He has taken in a former student, Shelley (Amelia Warner), who feeds and cares for him, and an odd young groupie named Corbit (Ferrell), a former Christian rocker who acts as Don's front-line defense against the Holden fanatics. Corbit asks for Reese's ID when she turns up at the door. ''Seriously?" she asks. ''Seriously."
''Winter Passing" becomes a standoff between Reese and these interlopers -- and between Reese and her father, whom she still blames for a wrecked childhood -- that imperceptibly shades into muted reconciliation. Rapp has a nice touch for characterizations and offhanded dialogue, as well as for scenes that organically relate to his heroine's emotional dilemma. When Reese drags a dead deer off a back country road late in the film's running, she's clearing more than venison from her path.
The film's momentum stalls, though, because everything hangs on whether Reese will find the letters and what she'll do when she finds them. In the character-driven tap dance leading up to those scenes, different acting styles collide like flying hams. Harris, resembling a literary hillbilly patriarch, broods and tries to explode, but Don is a spent force. Warner insinuates herself so that you're never sure whether Shelley is more or less than she seems. (It turns out she's more, but you never quite believe it.)
Ferrell, grabbing at the chance to do something serious, is the square peg. He's badly miscast, for one thing -- when Corbit talks about his hapless Christian rock past, you can't help but think of Ferrell's ''SNL" cowbell guy -- and his comic weirdness trips up the movie's delicate vibe. He's acting in a broader film than the other actors -- something closer to ''Garden State" than ''Chilly Scenes of Winter."
Deschanel nails it, though. Reese is not a particularly likable woman-child, and she can be brutal to people and things she no longer has use for (that includes herself), but Rapp has written into her a spark of tenderness that's on the verge of going out forever. Almost invisibly, the actress fans it until it begins to glow and you understand that the winter that's passing is hers.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.