The movie is 2 hours and 13 minutes long, which isn't short at all, but when it was over, my first thought was: “I want more!” I'm a bit surprised that the Polish distributor didn't release this title in cinemas before Christmas, because “Winter Solstice” instantly became a Christmas classic. There's no Santa Claus, no romantic love, or even a boy fighting with thieves – but there is plenty of warmth, which is much needed at this time. It's a beautiful story about three unfortunate people, forced to spend holidays together, who discover that only when we engage in personal relationships do we become the best versions of ourselves. There are scenes here that will make you laugh, others that will crush your heart, and those that are meant to offer hope, do so without a trace of falsehood. I already know I'll be watching Winter Solstice every year.
December 1970. A boys' boarding school somewhere in New England. Paul Hunham, a classics professor, is disliked by his students or the other teachers (including the principal). He is a tough, painfully honest, uncompromising man with a very difficult personality. When he is asked to appear on the carpet, he is not only reprimanded for failing the son of an important school patron, but is also told that during the holidays he will take care of the students who do not return home. For Paul, who has no family, it wouldn't be such a big tragedy if it weren't for the fact that he really hates people. And with one of the boys, 15-year-old Angus, he has become completely out of touch.
This plot may not be surprising. Alexander Payne, author of “Besides,” “Schmidt” and “The Descendants,” has already accustomed us to bittersweet, mediocre, long-form films about survivors. Here he has used a proven formula again, but what if it still works. What's more, “Winter Solstice” is, in my opinion, his best painting.
Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa in “Winter Solstice”
Not only is this movie set in the 1970s, but it looks like it was filmed back then! It's like finding an old VHS tape with a forgotten film by a distinguished director on it. Old school to the fullest, in the most positive sense of the word. And it's not just about design. The story itself flows here too “the old-fashioned way” – a bit slowly, allowing the viewer to get to know the characters and understand their development, with plenty of wise-cracking dialogue that doesn't rustle in paper. It is also worth noting the soundtrack, which fits this atmosphere perfectly. Even “Silver Joy” by Damian Jurado, which is 10 years old, sounds much “older” – when used at the perfect moment, it's truly heartwarming.
“Winter Solstice” offers an emotional journey that is not meant to be easygoing. There will be no technical manipulation here. When there is sadness on screen, it is immediately broken by humor. This film is about unlikable, flawed people who find their own way without glorification, and simply using minimal means. This is his great strength. The whole thing seems believable and hits the sweet spots.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the perfectly matched cast. In the lead role, Paul Giamatti gives a brilliant, complex performance worthy of his Golden Globe. His hero is hated at first, then tolerated, and in the end, you root for him wholeheartedly. He peels back the subsequent layers, his armor, and reveals to the viewer what he so often wanted to hide. You feel his loneliness, his sense of injustice, his remorse… There are scenes in the film where one look at Giamatti can overwhelm Giamatti with its emotional weight – for example, when he realizes that he has misread the signals sent by his fellow worker. At the same time, the American actor has a great sense of comedy. His funny lyrics have a good rhythm and resonate with all their might.
Paul Giamatti, Joey Randolph, and Dominic Cessa in “Winter Solstice”
The discoverer of “Winter Solstice” will certainly be Dominique Sessa, who plays a rebellious student filled with intense pain. This young actor has the maturity of his experienced colleagues and has a great career ahead of him – I am convinced of that. The same should go for Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who is the favorite to win an Oscar for a supporting role. Here she plays Mary, the school cook, whose son recently died in Vietnam. The whole world could abuse her and no one would blame her for it. However, she knows how important it is to try to live. It is largely due to her that Paul and Angus undergo a much-needed transformation. This character could have easily been made shallow, but Randolph subtly shows her silent suffering at a wonderful level – as if Mary were functioning normally, but shrouded in fog. This would be a well-deserved Oscar.
You can watch the “winter solstice” not only on holidays or when you see white snow outside the window. It works well any time of the year. These three actors created something unique on screen. We are dealing with a makeshift family made up of very different people, strangers to each other, who nevertheless need each other. This film is a great example of the fact that in difficult times we can find support from a completely unexpected source. It is never too late to learn a life lesson. If you start to doubt humanity while watching the news, watch “Winter Solstice” – it will be the perfect antidote.
“Amateur social media maven. Pop cultureaholic. Troublemaker. Internet evangelist. Typical bacon ninja. Communicator. Zombie aficionado.”