'Winter' of their dysfunction

Adam Rapp, the novice writer-director of "Winter Passing," has penned many plays, including "Five Noble Gases" and "Nocturne." He has also written several novels. All of this background feeds into his first film, which is about an East Village actress, Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel), who reunites in Michigan with her estranged father, Don (Ed Harris), a famous, and famously reclusive, novelist.

We first see Reese making the audition rounds and performing in Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" (a play with a passing plot resemblance to "Winter Passing"). We learn that her mother, from whom she was also estranged for more than six years and who was also a famous novelist, has recently passed away and bequeathed her a cache of the married couple's love letters. A book publisher (Amy Madigan) would dearly love to purchase these letters and offers Reese $100,000 for them. Partly because she needs the money but mostly because of some vaguely defined need to strike back at her parents, she agrees to seek out Don and retrieve the letters.

Although Rapp does a fine job of sketching the East Village fringe theater scene and the ragamuffin lives of its denizens, the film doesn't really settle down until Reese tracks her father to his rundown farmhouse and encounters not only him but his unofficial caretakers, Shelly (Amelia Warner), a former grad student of Don's, and Corbit (Will Ferrell), a former guitarist in the Christian rock group "Punching Pilate." (He tells Reese he quit the group when it "went all ska.")

This seemingly dysfunctional family actually functions rather well. Shelly, who is from England, has a brisk efficiency, which Reese resents. (In a fit of jealous pique, she says: "Why don't you go back to Narnia or wherever it is you came from.") Corbit, although he has the vacant stare and halting delivery of a class-A space cadet, is solicitous of Don's every need. And there are many. With his mop of silver hair, the heavy-drinking novelist, who hasn't written anything that he has shown anybody in decades, resembles a besotted Ebenezer Scrooge, though his temperament is far more withdrawn. He has the frailty of someone who just wants to be left alone. He doesn't resent Reese's intrusion - he has no idea of her real mission - but he doesn't exactly welcome it either.

Rapp has clearly been influenced by such lyrically disaffected '70s movies as "Five Easy Pieces." He brings out in Deschanel a sense of yearning, an avidity, that hits home. It's her most emotionally layered performance. (At times she resembles Debra Winger.) Ferrell, who plays it straight here, is in some ways the most touching character in the movie: Corbit is just as much in need of succor as Don or his daughter. He takes care of others as a way of tending to himself.

The film goes awry with Don and what he represents. Although Harris plays him well, this novelist is freighted with too much literary-mythic baggage - he's a J.D. Salingeresque mystery man crossed with a radical '60s burnout. It's no wonder Reese has had a tough time of it.

Despite his off-Broadway patina, Rapp has a fairly conventional mind-set. The attitudes he displays in "Winter Passing" are closer to Dr. Phil than Dr. Chekhov. The movie is all about how admitting that you are hurt is the first step to self-healing. It's about learning to express yourself outside your art. For Rapp, the problems with the Holdens all come down to problems of communication.

But Reese in particular has done rather well communicating her dislikes to everyone within earshot. Rapp wants us to believe that family members could learn to love again if they just opened up. The Eugene O'Neill who wrote "Long Day's Journey Into Night" would have eaten this guy for breakfast. Grade: B+

Rated R for language, some drug use and sexuality.

Sex/Nudity: 5 scenes of implied sex or innuendo. Violence: 7 instances including the drowning of a kitten. Language: 25 strong expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 6 instances of drinking, 14 scenes of smoking, 2 scenes with cocaine.

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