Let's hope that Zooey Deschanel never becomes a big star. She is an actress who fits so much better to the small movies, the kind of independents that few people see or even hear of, than to anything coming out of Hollywood these days. The expressiveness in her face, particularly in her bold blue eyes, is detrimental to the sadness and the whimsy of these films. Of course, she deserves to be seen in them; she makes them far more enjoyable with her presence, and she would have to be paid well to keep her away from supporting roles in romantic comedies and Tim Allen pictures.
I'm thinking of a kind of film I watched growing up: they arrived in the video store seemingly out from nowhere, never playing at the suburban multiplex and therefore never reaching my young, theatre-dwelling heart until they showed up in cassette form. You could pick one out easily, as it displayed on the shelf with only a single rentable copy, sitting between the plethora of copies of whatever popular titles I'd already seen at the cinemas. These simple dramas were filled with regular folks in probable situations, though most ventured into odd territory now and then. And they always, without fail, featured a small town bar with a minimal amount of patrons, into which the greenhorn protagonist would wander. Winter Passing, starring Deschanel, is the latest example.
Another thing about these films is that I can't remember a single one of them. I fondly remember the idea of them, but their titles completely escape me. I guess that were the world still as small as it was back then and I still as ignorant to limited release indies, All the Real Girls, which also featured Deschanel, and Moonlight Mile would be recent equivalents, though the latter did make its way to my hometown. Winter Passing, the feature debut from playwright and author Adam Rapp, should be another forgettable title, but the actress gives such a vivid performance that I can't get it out of my mind.
She plays Reese Holden, a struggling, coke-addicted actress, who is estranged from her novelist parents. Offered a large sum of money for the publication of the amorous correspondence between her mother and father, she finally makes a homecoming to the small Michigan town she grew up in.
Her mother has recently died —Reese didn't show for the funeral—and her father, Don (Ed Harris), is a reclusive mess, now living in the garage and drinking whiskey straight through his days. He's not alone, though. Residing in the house now is Corbit (Will Ferrell), a guileless Christian rocker who serves as Don's handyman and mechanic, and Shelly (Amelia Warner), a former student of Don's who helps with the cooking and the whiskey shopping. At first Reese can't warm up to any of them, as she's just there to locate the box of love letters, and of course whenever she has trouble dealing with the bizarre living situation she's stumbled upon, she heads to that local, sparsely populated watering hole.
The plot is rather predictable; Reese eventually reconciles with her father and befriends his new "family", and from the first mention of the bar's open mic night, you know the guitar-wielding Corbit is going to perform there. Rapp's screenplay doesn't even bother to tie up any of the story that might distract from the development of the characters' kinship. The publisher who gives Reese the offer in the beginning of the film? We never see her again.
Yet, the story is made compelling by the film's cast. Deschanel not only carries the film, she lifts it high above her head and performs ballet beneath it. She couldn't be described so much as powerful or daring or any of those other favorite adjectives used on actresses with more self-satisfying, "admirable" roles, but should the word perfect be used in a review, let it be this one and let it be indicative of her. I would say that I've only seen her better in All the Real Girls, but that is as much a testament to that film's beautiful direction by David Gordon Green as to her abilities in her role there.
While Deschanel is the reason to see Winter Passing, her support is nearly impeccable in keeping it from being a one-woman show. Harris, a brilliant actor who never seems to reduce his intensity for any part, works with a fairly clichéd character and brings his all to make it his own. Warner, meanwhile, is a bit of a bore next to Deschanel, but her very antithetic straight-woman appearance makes for a balanced female co-existence.
Then there is Will Ferrell. His contribution to the ensemble is being described as a dramatic turn, but really, just because the star is not as riotous as usual doesn't make him dramatic. Subdued and sparing, he is still the comic relief of the film. He's a little silly, a lot awkward, and every word out of his mouth ignites a smile. It could just be that he's Will Ferrell, incessantly goofy, and his being in a movie otherwise focused on serious, melancholic themes such as suicide makes him an easy escape from any depressing thoughts the audience may generate. Really, though, he's intentionally quite funny, and not in a way that makes him steal the show. His comedy is slight enough not to take away from the dramatic tone while being entertaining enough to keep his fans happy.
There are some other humorous bits that come from the obligatory quirkiness necessary to all films of this type – a kind of quirkiness that gives the word quirk a good name. Here it would be Don and Corbit driving golf balls inside a small room in the house, a simple gag that isn't overly addressed or displayed, and actually has to do with character and story rather than being a throwaway joke. The adverse of Winter Passing might be a film like Garden State, which tries too hard to be quirky throughout and then sidetracks the audience with forced sentiment.
Zooey Deschanel probably won't become a big name anytime soon. Her next film is the romantic comedy Failure to Launch, supporting for Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker, but then the IMDB credits her with three studio-less indies ahead of her next supporting role for Hollywood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. So, I'm likely to be happy with her career for awhile. She's a highly intelligent young woman, daughter of actress Mary Jo Deschanel (who shows up in photographs as Reese's mother in Winter Passing) and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and even some of the few big pictures she's done have been smart choices (Elf; The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), even if I don't think they were quite right for her. Rapp, who currently has a play off-Broadway, could just come back and write sequels to Winter Passing—plot isn't an issue—so that we can see her keep shining away, but I have a feeling that she'll keep shining regardless.