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Review: “10 Items or Less” (2006)

Grocery store checkout lanes are unusual places because people show everything about who they are and think they show nothing. It’s all right there on that rolling food-and-goods catwalk, all our personal preferences summed up in a shopping cart of air fresheners (Hawaiian breeze or fresh linen?) and bread and bananas and toilet tissue (Charmin or Quilted Northern?). Cashiers probably see more of human nature in a day than psychologists see in a lifetime, and still it feels anonymous.

Brad Silberling’s simplistic “10 Items or Less” isn’t about the anonymity, though; like “Snow Cake,” another indie 2006 release, it’s about the everyday opportunities for connection that people miss. On any other day, the protagonist, an actor known just as “Him” (Morgan Freeman), would belong in this category. But in the opening of “10 Items or Less,” Him is in a vulnerable spot. After commercial success in a few films with Ashley Judd (a nice dose of meta-humor), Him’s fame torch is flickering out. The big-money offers from big-name directors have dried up, so he’s considering taking a part in an indie film. Freeman, in his typical uncannily intuitive, droll and non-pretentious Morgan Freeman way, reasons this is a no-risk move. He even dubs it “the cinematic equivalent of a blow job” because if the movie’s a Sundance hit, it will boost his indie cred; if it’s a flop, hey, no harm done. Silberling may be pretty new to this scriptwriting gig, but observations like that sure don’t make him sound green.

At the Ranch Market in sun-bleached, bland Carson, Calif., Him locates his subject of study: Scarlet (Paz Vega), a bored and cranky cashier who’s an expert at sizing up her customers the minute they walk in the stoor. (Her P.A. system upbraiding of a repeat melon squeezer shows Vega has a comic timing purely her own.) She’s only 25, but already she hates her job, hates her ex (Bobby Cannavale) and the lazy coworker who’s sleeping with him (Anne Dudek), hates her life. In Vega there’s a stubborness that makes it easy to believe someone so young could be so hard. The actress, with that resoluteness and timing, is more than a Penelope Cruz copycapt. Him decides — if for no reason other than he’s stranded at the market because his ride (Jonah Hill) is M.I.A. — to help her lighten up. Somewhere between the 10 items or less lane, Target (Him is so awed by the low prices he demands “do people know about this place?”) and the job interview Scarlet’s dreading the two strike up a temporary, momentous friendship.

Owing to this lack of excitement (excluding the part where Scarlet rams her ex’s car), “10 Items or Less” is like any other independent film only moreso, Rick Blaine would say. Shot-wise, nothing stands out as aesthetically inventive, but that’s well and good — cameras in a minimalist character drama are meant to stay in the background. So is the plot, which is a string of barely interconnected scenes that require a lot of driving, some violence (see above) and humor, but not the yuk-it-up kind. This film’s whole reason for being is Scarlet and Him and the relationship they create out of practically nothing. Silberling sets about building their friendship very casually, starting with Him’s marvelling at the way Scarlet’s lightning-fast reflexes and Scarlet’s wariness of his boundless enthusiasm for the job she despises. Freeman is a snug fit for the role of Him, a part he’s playing in “10 Items or Less” and probably has played before in his many years as an actor. He’s the right kind of wise and the right kind of encouraging to push Scarlet’s Vega outside her small, unhappy life. Vega, so arresting in “Spanglish,” has enough anger-fueled gumption to match this star scene for scene. She’s got the leading-lady face; the talent is character actress-ready.

This is what I love about “10 Items or Less” in particular: Actors aside, there’s little to distinguish Him and Scarlet from the million other humans on Earth. They aren’t special at all, which is the very reason their story is poignant. They could be anybody, they are anybody, and together they are two anybodies better for having met each other.

Grade: A-

No. 28: “The Station Agent” (2003)

“It’s funny how people see me and treat me, since I’m really just a simple, boring person,” notes reclusive dwarf Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) in Thomas McCarthy’s oberservant indie “The Station Agent,” and you might be tempted to apply that observation to the movie. Resist the urge. Sure, “The Station Agent,” a little-seen Sundance darling anchored by three stellar performances, is a gently unassuming little movie where nothing much happens, but it packs an emotional punch that will leave you smarting for days.

A few minutes into “The Station Agent,” this claim might seem far-fetched. Here, after all, is a movie that consists, primarily, of three characters doing one thing: talking. And talking. Eating and talking. Drinking. Drinking and talking. Then talking some more. To be fair, there’s very little action here, and zero melodrama. But McCarthy has a sly way of hiding real breakthroughs, real relevations, in conversations that sound like they’re full of offhand comments. Credit the actors — Dinklage, who’s quickly becoming a first-rate character actor, the always-faultless Patricia Clarkson and promising newcomer Bobby Cannavale — for creating characters so human, so intriguing, so affecting, that we’re drawn completely into their world.

That world centers on Finbar, a train buff and unrepentant loner who drops out of life altogether when his sole friend dies and Finbar inherits a run-down train station in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. He figures he’s done with people, done with the world, but he’s wrong. Enter Joe (Cannavale), a motormouth extrovert operating his sick father’s hotdog/coffee stand near the abandoned station. More than a bit intrigued by this curious hermit, Joe tries his hardest to draw Finbar out but has little luck until Olivia (Clarkson), a klutzy but well-meaning divorcee and artist still mourning her young son’s death, enters the picture. (The picture of distraction, she nearly runs him over with her car … twice.) After much fumbling, much stumbling and awkwardness, the trio strikes up a most improbable friendship that threatens to do away with their self-imposed exiles.

Of course, that plot summary doesn’t begin to do justice to such a stirring film. Why? All the poignancy, all the layers of meaning and the little truths and the sock-you-in-the-gut insights, exist in these three understated but phenomenally effective performances. Dinklage, Clarkson and Cannavale aren’t the kind of actors to spoon-feed meaning: You have to do the work, do the digging and the excavating, but the emotional payoff is well worth all the effort. Take Dinklage, for example. He plays Finbar as tight-lipped and wary, the kind of man who’s drinking alone even when he’s in a bar jam-packed with people. He keeps people at arm’s length because he’s learned that his smalls size makes the world feel … entitled — entitled to pat his head and grin, entitled to talk down to him, entitled pry into the most private details of his life to feel out his “normalcy.” But behind that wariness there’s a fire in his eyes, a kind of tamped-down rage, that makes this hermit anything but boring. In fact, Dinklage is the opposite; he’s smoldering, ready to ignite when it’s least expected.

Cannavale, on the other hand, has the most verbally expressive role — Bobby almost literally never stops talking — yet with tiny gestures he reveals a man whose world has shrunk to two people. Joe has become a drowning man reaching out to anyone and everyone to pull him out of solitude. (The scene where Finbar cruelly dismisses him will make your heart twist painfully.) The more Finbar pulls away, the tigher Joe wants to cling to him like a life preserver. He sees a chance for connection and won’t let it go. And Clarkson, a undervalued actress if ever there was one, is the queen of understated performances; this, if possible, is one of her best. Like Finbar, she is unsociable and lonely, but she reveals Olivia’s hidden pain through her distracted actions: She doesn’t answer her phone or return calls, she drives all over the road, she doesn’t refill medications, she forgets to eat or even buy groceries. These details are slight, but they sting as sharply as “The Station Agent” does.