What do you say to a dwarf in a business suit? It's a quandary that bedevils just about everybody in "The Station Agent," writer/director Tom McCarthy's tender, insidiously funny rendering of a life experienced at chest level. Standing at 4 feet 5 inches and as taciturn as they come, Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) doesn't waste much effort seeking out the company of others. And who can blame him? Wherever he goes, the reactions he inspires range from patronization to outright ridicule. ("Where's Snow White?" taunts one good-for-nothing kid.)
Most folks just stare and mutter something inane, so Fin is content to spend his time tinkering with model trains in the back of the New Jersey hobby shop where he works. The untimely death of his boss cuts that lifeline, yet simultaneously replaces it with another: The deceased has bequeathed Fin an actual train depot in a remote Jersey burg, and he moves in expecting to wallow in self-imposed solitude. But isolation isn't always the same thing as privacy. Upon arrival, Fin finds himself descended upon by a handful of damaged souls who seem determined to ingratiate themselves into his good graces. And that's just about the last thing he wants.
Part of the brilliance of McCarthy's film is the way it invites us to acknowledge our own discomfort with Fin's abnormality. Try to suppress the giggles when our diminutive hero has to dive out of the way of an oncoming vehicle piloted by a clumsy neighbor (Patricia Clarkson) -- twice. The bulk of the movie's healing comedy, though, rests in the character of Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), a Hispanic hot dog vendor and self-styled smoothie who will stop at nothing to make Fin his amigo. Cannavale's Joe and Clarkson's Olivia Harris (a painter who's mourning the loss of her son and husband in separate incidents) become the confidantes Fin never sought, allowing filmmaker McCarthy to pose some salient questions about the nature of friendship. Is bonding the inevitable byproduct of shared (or at least similar) experience? Is it more a matter of one party's dogged persistence? Or is it just a mutual reaction to boredom?
The movie never forms a definitive answer, due in part to a denouement so subtle that it's practically peripheral. This is a picture that's more about the journey than the destination, and you couldn't ask for a better conductor than Dinklage, whose deadpan resignation imparts acres of meaning to dialogue that's often no more sophisticated than "yes" and "no." A triumph of minimalist acting, his performance may be the greatest breakthrough for the cause of the little person on screen since the days of the great Michael Dunn. Like Fin's own transition from miniature trains to the real thing, The Station Agent just refuses to be bound by its own scale.