MVD Marquee Collection: Winter Passing (2006) - Reviewed

Most Will Ferrell fans point to Marc Forster’s 2006 film Stranger than Fiction as the comedian’s brief foray into dramatic acting, but it actually started much earlier that year with Anthony Rapp’s brother-turned-filmmaker Adam Rapp’s bittersweet dramedy Winter Passing.  Sharing the screen with such industry giants as Ed Harris, Zooey Deschanel and Amelia Warner, Ferrell’s presence in the picture is at once offbeat and entirely appropriate considering the bizarre, dysfunctional circumstances surrounding the broken family inhabiting Rapp’s film.  Very much a homegrown indie, this warm-hearted and curiously affecting yet quiet dramedy seen now is best remembered for being the one and only narrative feature film to mention Traverse City, Michigan as one of its primary locations.

Re-released by the MVD Marquee Collection, the film tells the story of Reese Holdin (Zooey Deschanel), a depressed actress/part-time bartender living in New York.  Estranged from her famous author parents, Don and Mary Holdin (Ed Harris and Mary Jo Deschanel) we meet her sharing cocaine with her punk drug dealer when she isn’t having sex with him and if that’s not enough she copes by smashing her hand in between the drawers on her dresser. 

One day she is approached by a publishing agent keen on building a story around the letters exchanged between her parents and accepts the offer to retrieve the letters for $100,000.  Thus begins her return to Northern Michigan to confront her father as well as her own longstanding demons she spends the first half of the film running from.  Reese doesn’t know it yet but her outlook on life and her strained relations with her father are about to change forever.

While leaning a little too heavily towards offbeat quirk including still unresolved peculiarities such as Ed Harris sleeping outdoors in the winter within a full bedroom set, Winter Passing as it stands is an engaging and heartfelt dramedy with Zooey Deschanel and an unrecognizable Ed Harris taking center stage as years of suppressed feelings of anger and guilt bubble to the surface.  Amelia Warner is also a strong supporting character as a former pupil of Don Holdin’s who has since taken refuge along with Will Ferrell within Mr. Holdin’s home.  Ferrell, though still an oddball character, dials down his comic energy and gives a well-rounded performance as a man struggling with his own anxieties and fears.

Shot by Wendigo cinematographer Terry Stacey, visually Winter Passing makes great use of the rural locations though it turned out the film was shot in New York and New Jersey rather than Michigan.  The soundtrack is a soft mix of preexisting pop tracks and original orchestral compositions by A Decade Under the Influence composer John Kimbrough though much of the score is used for montage.  

Mostly though, this is a mid-sized actor’s picture about familial strife and trying to overcome one’s own self-destructive vices.  More than anything, it’s a chance to see Will Ferrell flex his dramatic muscles and in the end proves to be a stepping stone for Zooey Deschanel.  While Adam Rapp is primarily a playwright and novelist, his stab at film directing presents a unique and oddly heartwarming look at life in small town America.  Its quiet charm starts to grow on you over time.

--Andrew Kotwicki