The Spitfire Grill
Leaving The Spitfire Grill, I was convinced of two things: that nice girls who’ve done their time in prison should be given a second chance, and that Alison Elliott is going to be a major actress.¹ I knew the first thing going in, and I would have known it even if the movie hadn’t systematically drilled it into my forehead. But Alison Elliott … well, damned if she doesn’t make this otherwise trite Kleenex marathon worth seeing.
Elliott is Percy Talbot, an Appalachian ex-con who drifts into sleepy Gilead, Maine (actually sleepy Vermont). With its rolling hills, rushing waterfalls, and quirky townies who appreciate the local trees, Gilead is like Twin Peaks left out in the sun too long. As the mousy Percy steered around the disapproving stares of the natives, I knew, just knew, that she would end up a pivotal and beloved member of the community.
First, though, she takes a job waiting tables at the Spitfire Grill, a dead diner owned by no-nonsense widow Hannah (Ellen Burstyn). When Hannah got waylaid by an accident, and Percy ineptly took over as cook, I don’t know how I knew that the bashful Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden), unhappily married to Hannah’s bitter nephew (Will Patton), would help Percy in the kitchen and become her dearest friend. Somehow, though, I knew.
Then the wise Percy comes up with a plan to sell the Spitfire: raffle it off in an essay contest, where the entrants send $100 cash along with their reasons for wanting the diner. Soon, bags of mail and money are pouring in. I knew that; I was on a roll. But I was shocked, utterly shocked, to learn that the collected $200,000 in raffle money had vanished and that Percy would be blamed for it. I have never seen this plot development in any other movie this week.
The Spitfire Grill is a soft machine designed to open tearducts (my own eyes stayed as dry as Percy’s cooking). What’s more, it builds up a series of climaxes driven by revelations of clichéd secrets and traumas. I’ll be vague here, but I figured out the mystery man in the woods almost before I sat down. And writer-director Lee David Zlotoff unwraps a backstory for Percy that is the sheerest overkill. Welike the girl, already — stop hyping her as this saintly diamond-in-the-very-rough.
Spitfire is the feature debut of Zlotoff, who created TV’s MacGyver; this doesn’t mean Percy makes gizmos out of gum wrappers, though the movie may have been better for it. Zlotoff would be nowhere without Rob Draper, whose cinematography often achieves the lyricism Zlotoff’s script fumbles for. With its laconic loner striding into town and changing it forever, the film is like High Plains Drifter as a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.
Yet one can’t fully dismiss Spitfire. Stringy-haired and drably clothed, Alison Elliott nevertheless radiates beauty; she has a wide, warming smile she rations sparingly, opting mainly for a performance of touching gravity and vulnerability. She takes this lumpy, heavy film-for-the-whole-family squarely on her slouching shoulders and carries it until the final scenes, when there are two corpses, one of which is the movie.
¹ Not that she got any roles afterward to prove it. This movie pretty much disintegrated on contact, failing to redeem itself by providing a breakout role for Alison Elliott. Oh, well.