Winter Passing is a melancholic film that’s difficult to swallow. It features a lead who abuses her body simply to pass the time, the murder of an innocent kitten, and four characters all of whom are emotionally damaged. It’s a sad film, but charming in its own way. It takes a few opportunities to make you laugh, but for the most part, this is going to be a film that will be depressing in tone. It’s ultimately effective, even if it’s initially a bit too upsetting for its own good.
The first act is all set-up for our lead character, a depressed woman named Reese (Zooey Deschanel). Casual sex, drugs, and self-harm are all part of her daily routine. At night, she is a bartender and sometimes an actress, although I’m not sure if she truthfully enjoys either. Her one love is a kitten she rescued from the streets, although it doesn’t play a large enough role in her life. The reason for this depression, presumably, is that her parents — both were writers who focused too hard on their work — didn’t spend enough time with her, and now her mother is dead. She didn’t attend the funeral.
Since her parents were both kind of famous, anything they wrote is apparently worth money. A woman offers Reese $100,000 to publish a series of letters that they wrote to one another. Reese, needing the money, decides to head home in order to find the letters, not caring one way or another if they’re published. Of course, people go home all the time in order to find themselves, so it should be little surprise to you what happens over the course of the rest of the film.
What is surprising is how it’s not just Reese who needs to improve her life. All four of the characters begin in one place and end in another. Her father, Don (Ed Harris), now an alcoholic, seems to welcome his daughter, even though she ran away at the age of 18 and never looked back. There are also two live-ins who have formed something of a surrogate family. The first is Corbit (Will Ferrell), who plays guitar and does the “manly” work of the house, while the other is Shelly (Amelia Warner), who cooks and cleans and does the stereotypical female work.
These are all damaged individuals who look like they could all snap with the drop of a pin. That certainly happens, but what’s intriguing is watching them try to work through their pain, to try to keep everything together, and to avoid setting off everyone else in the household. Some scenes are actually quite tense because of this, which came as quite the surprise to me. Seeing these characters interact with each other is what makes the film worthwhile.
There are some comedic moments to Winter Passing, but considering its tone for the majority of its running time, these are brief reprieves used only to lighten the mood for a short while. For most of the film, we watch Reese talk to other people, wondering how she’ll react given the situation. How much will she learn while staying at her former home? And will it change her life for the better, or for the worse? We watch the film to learn these things, and by the end realize that we really do care.
It’s way over-the-top at the beginning. She’s essentially throwing her life away, not caring about anyone, and we see this for a seemingly endless period of time. Some trimming would have been beneficial here. We understand her depression early on, and having it hammered home like it is here makes it feel as if director/writer Adam Rapp doesn’t give his audience enough credit. By the time a kitten’s life is threatened, I had already had enough of seeing her act this way, and wanted to see her get home.
At the center of the film is Zooey Deschanel, showing versatility in a role requiring her to act unlike the quirky and happy persona she’s known for. Here, she’s all doom and gloom, and it’s interesting to see her in this light. It’s something I’d like to see more of, actually, as it shows us her depth as an actress, and allows her to branch out more. That it’s an effective performance is great, too, and it has the power to evoke some serious emotional response from the audience.
I’m not quite as sold on the rest of the performances from the other members of the household. Ed Harris, in what could be almost called self-parody, is dull as the bearded, scruffy alcoholic. Will Ferrell, a man known for zany energy, is boring and lifeless as a musician. Amelia Warner is better, playing a woman who may or may not have a hidden agenda, but little comes from her character, making it feel less important than it should be. Most of these actors get deep characters, but not enough time to fully explore them.
Winter Passing is a good movie filled with deep characters, unfortunate situations and enough comedy to stop the melancholic tone from being overbearing. Its first act drags on for too long, and the supporting cast isn’t as strong as you would hope, but Zooey Deschanel is so good in the lead role that she carries the film. The plot is fairly routine, which isn’t in the movie’s favor, but I appreciated it in large part because of the depth of the characters and Deschanel’s performance.