WINTER SOLSTICE — ** 1/2 — Anthony LaPaglia, Aaron Stanford, Mark Webber; rated R (profanity, violence, brief drugs).

Give "Winter Solstice" some credit for taking an unexpected route.

This character drama clearly aims to be an everyday "slice-of-life" tale and does so by developing characters and situations in an understated, realistic manner. Which is sort of refreshing, given the soap opera machinations of so many big-studio dramas.

However, if ever a film was a little too much like real life, it's this one. Even at 90 minutes, it feels a little humdrum and tedious. And it's the kind of sullen family drama that has become an independent movie cliche, playing in film festivals around the country every year.

"Winter Solstice" follows the Winters family, three New Jersey men coping with loss in different ways. Patriarch Jim (Anthony LaPaglia) has been burying himself in his landscaping work ever since the death of his wife. But in doing so, he's driven a wedge between himself and his sons.

In fact, hard-working Gabe (Aaron Stanford) is so desperately bored with life in the Garden State that he's planning to go to Florida any day now. And self-destructive high school student Pete (Mark Webber) has withdrawn completely — to the point that his educational future is now in question.

Fortunately, Molly Ripkin (Allison Janney), who is house-sitting for a neighbor, has befriended Jim, and a summer-school teacher (Ron Livingston) is determined to get Pete back on track.

Writer/director Josh Sternfeld gets some fine performances out of the ensemble cast, especially Stanford, whose brooding intensity is nicely matched by LaPaglia. (Not to slight Webber, but his character is more prickly and less likable than the others.)

Actually, the film could use more time with the supporting cast — in particular Janney, Livingston and Michelle Monaghan (who plays Gabe's girlfriend), who manage to provide a few moments of sunshine in this bleak landscape.

"Winter Solstice" is rated R for occasional use of strong sexual profanity, a couple of brief scenes of violence (scuffles, as well as some rough-housing), and some brief drug content (references to drug use). Running time: 89 minutes.