Winter Passing (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Winter Passing is a classic example of a pedestrian motion picture being lifted out of mediocrity by an arresting lead performance. Zooey Deschanel doesn't just elevate Winter Passing; she carries it. There are other things to be said in favor of Adam Rapp's debut feature - the tone is suitably melancholy and he does a nice job writing Deschanel's character - but this film belongs to the actress. This is only her second time to step out of a supporting role (she was the co-lead in All the Real Girls), and it proves that she's ready for the "big time." As she has shown in the past, and continues to display here, versatility is among her strengths.

Winter Passing doesn't offer a comfortable viewing experience. It's about a lost, damaged young woman who is forced to confront a past filled with neglect and regret. Such journeys are rarely pleasant, and this one is bleaker than most. Rapp does not hesitate to offer graphic representations of what his protagonist will go through to avoid facing the emotional pain demanded by her history - even when the tools of avoidance demand self-mutilation (intentionally slamming her hand in a drawer). And, while there is closure at the end, the cliché of "happily ever after" does not apply.

Reese (Deschanel) lives a profitless existence as a bartender/actress in New York City, filling up her waking hours with drugs and meaningless sex. The only emotional attachment she has formed is with a kitten she rescued and brought to live in her apartment. Her view of the future changes when she is approached by a book editor, Lori Lansky (Amy Madigan). Lori wants Reese to turn over a series of 150 love letters written by her mother and father, both of whom were famous authors. The subject of her family is painful to Reese, and dredges up unhappy memories. Her mother recently killed herself, and she is estranged from her father, Don (Ed Harris). The lure of $100,000 propels Reese to travel to Michigan to look for the letters.

Arriving at her father's house, she finds things to be different than she expected. Don, physically frail and on the edge of senility, has moved into the garage where he spends hours trying to find the words to write one last novel. His house is now inhabited by two people Reese has never met. There's Corbit (Will Ferrell), who fulfills a handyman's duties in return for free room and board. And there's Shelly (Amelia Warner), an ex-student of Don's who acts as nurse, companion, and cook. Reese's initial reaction to Corbit is neutral, but she dislikes Shelly, whom she suspects of sleeping with her father. (To the extent that "sleep" is the operative verb, she is correct. One doubts that Don is capable of anything sexual.)

The supporting cast, despite a few well-known names, gets mixed notices. As Shelly, Amelia Warner gives a credible performance. Some of her scenes with Deschanel are among Winter Passing's most dramatically sound. On the other hand, both Ed Harris and Will Ferrell are not at their best. Harris, with his scraggly hair and beard, seems at times on the border of self-parody. Ferrell is either miscast or incapable of doing a serious role. For an actor known for energy, it's odd to see a portrayal so flat and lifeless. Corbit is boring.

While the intensity of the main character and the darkness of the tone are unusual, the skeleton of Winter Passing is standard-order stuff. It's common to send a protagonist home to reconcile with his/her past. What makes this effort worthwhile is Deschanel. She imbues Reese with such force that the individual becomes vivid, her pain palpable. The only way something like Winter Passing could work is if the viewer identifies absolutely with the character - and that's what happens.

Winter Passing (United States, 2005)

Director: Adam Rapp
Cast: Zooey Deschanel, Ed Harris, Will Ferrell, Amelia Warner, Amy Madigan
Screenplay: Adam Rapp
Cinematography: Terry Stacey
Music: John Kimbrough
U.S. Distributor: Yari Film Group
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2005-02-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1