About fifteen minutes into Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, the film’s protagonist, Fin (Peter Dinklage), walks into a convenience store near the train depot he has just inherited. The clerk is astonished to see the man—a dwarf—in her shop. As he heads over to a cooler to grab some water, she leans over the counter to get a better look. “Yoohoo,” she calls. He turns toward her; she pulls out a camera and snaps a picture. Annoyed, Fin nods and continues to shop, a nonchalant indication that the clerk’s reaction to her once-in-a-lifetime dwarf sighting is all-too-familiar to him. One could criticize this convenience store encounter as easy and perhaps a little condescending; more than once, McCarthy’s film teeters towards mocking the provincialism of the New Jersey townsfolk Fin encounters (in one particularly unconvincing scene, a pair of twenty-somethings make a dated reference to Fantasy Island, shouting “De plane! De plane!” as Fin walks away from them). But Dinklage’s casually weary response to the indignation has an emotional authenticity.
When I first saw The Station Agent, I was deeply moved by McCarthy’s empathy for his characters and especially by his film’s sensitive portrayal of a fully realized central character who happened to be a little person. But I was grading on a curve. Like Fin, my sister is an achondroplastic dwarf, and my whole life, I have observed as she has endured taunts, stares, and (yes, it really happens) unwanted picture-taking from grown adults who really should know better. The unrelenting insenstivity towards dwarves that is rampant and strangely permissible in our culture has become a part of my sister’s everyday experience, but before The Station Agent, I had never seen that insensitivity convincingly portrayed on a movie screen. Hollywood prefers its dwarves to be munchkins and elves—inhabitants of fantasy worlds (or yes, fantasy islands)—not flesh-and-blood leading men.
Representation matters, though. As much as we go to the movies to step outside of ourselves—to be thrilled, fascinated, challenged, or entertained—we also seek something emotionally familiar and relatable. And for those of us who feel different or somehow “other,” because of our race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical disability, and the like, there can be something isolating about the way Hollywood cinema leaves us on the outside looking in. Read Chris Wisniewski’s contribution to Reverse Shot’s Stuck in the Middle symposium.