Friday, September 10, 2010

The Quiet Perfection Of The Spitfire Grill

The Good: Strong characterization, acting, cinematography, plot
The Bad: 95% predictable, No DVD bonus features.
The Basics: Curl up under some blankets with a partner -or with a mug of hot cocoa if you're alone- and watch The Spitfire Grill. It's a wonderful film!

It's rare to find a film like The Spitfire Grill where character comes before anything else. I first saw The Spitfire Grill in the art theater when I was in college and I was enchanted by how well the movie TOLD the story it was telling. When I found it on DVD recently, I was not surprised to discover that it appeared only in a "no-frills" presentation. It was not commercially successful.

In Gilead, a small town in Maine, a young woman named Percy Talbott comes to settle down after getting out of prison. She is put up in the local inn, called the Spitfire Grill where she begins to wait tables and help out the aging proprietor, Hannah Furguson. Hannah is feisty and crabby, yet takes Percy in and with the help of her introverted daughter-in-law, Shelby, the three run things. When Hannah breaks her hip, though, she decides to get rid of the Grill and Percy's idea to have an essay-writing contest to give the inn away causes Shelby's jealous husband to investigate why Percy was in prison at all.

The film is essentially a character study set in the small town in Maine. Throughout the film, the question of healing is raised, with Percy explicitly asking, "Do you think a wound can run so deep" it can't ever be healed? That's the question that occupies the film. The three main characters have wounds: Percy's cloaked past, Shelby's constant abuse from her husband and Hannah's guilt over choices she made in her past (part of the story the movie tells that I shall not reveal!).

It's easy to complain about the film having a slow pace, but that's actually part of what makes it so good, it's something the director got right. Writer and director Lee David Zlotoff perceptively captures small time life, complete with gossips and the standards that come in rural America of marrying the local girl and sticking around in the area to raise a family. In Small Town, Anywhere, life DOES move at a slower pace and while it can be irritating to people accustomed to bigger cities, it's actually part of the magic of what makes The Spitfire Grill excellent.

The bottom line is sometimes it takes getting to the middle of nowhere, living slow for a while, to heal. "Heal Thyself" wasn't told to a physician who was supposed to go out and run a marathon! The Spitfire Grill tells a story in a rather old fashioned way; by building the character threads, weaving them together in a realistic fashion and THEN letting the characters move around with the decisions they have made.

And in this film, there are people who need to be healed. The most obvious is the wonderful and simply beautiful Percy Talbott (Alison Elliott). Her benefactress Hannah (Ellen Burstyn) and the occasionally simple Shelby also need healing in one form or another and through the cathartic nature of the meandering plot, we're assured all people get it. The characters are decent and in large part that comes from the acting.

Ellen Burstyn is feisty and strong-willed as Hannah. She plays the role with an ornery quality that seems like a parody of the crotchety old woman, but Burstyn makes it her own. Her body language is solid through the movie, so when her character has to move fast near the end, Burstyn is convincingly crippled and unable to make her body move. That's getting into a role!

Marcia Gay Harden is decent as the mousy Shelby. She behaves exactly like a woman who has been browbeaten for years would behave and her performance is, in some ways, the most difficult to watch. Harden convincingly plays a woman used to being put down and the way her body language changes as Shelby gets some positive reinforcement in her life is part of the simple pleasure of watching The Spitfire Grill.

It is Alison Elliott whose burden it is to sell the movie and she succeeds wonderfully. She's so good in The Spitfire Grill that I'm surprised she has only had a handful of roles since. Elliott is, quite simply, a compelling young woman wounded by her past. She plays the part without a moment of letting the facade slip and it's a joy to see such young talent in film today (or ten years ago now!).

One of the nice things about The Spitfire Grill is it doesn't meet all of our expectations. The happy ending we ultimately expect doesn't quite arrive. Zlotoff wisely tells a compelling story that includes normal human foibles. More than anything else the film succeeds because the people act like real people. They are being human with all of their quirks, prejudices and especially fears. It's a marvelous character study that succeeds even though certain elements fall along predicted plots.

The Spitfire Grill did not do well in theaters, but catching it on DVD is certainly worthy of your attention. It's an artful, enjoyable film and it moves at a pace that helps tell the story it wants to tell, the way it wants to tell it. What could one want more than a story with compelling characters, well acted, with a genuine emotional core to it?

I don't know.

For other quiet, subtle dramas, please visit my reviews of:
One Day
Brokeback Mountain
Dear John


For more movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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