The Spitfire Grill
Screenplay : Lee David Zlotoff
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Alison Elliott (Percy Talbott), Ellen Burstyn (Hannah Ferguson), Marcia Gay Harden (Shelby Goddard), Will Patton (Nahum Goddard), Kieran Mulroney (Joe Sperling), Gailard Sartain (Sheriff Gary Walsh)
By now, most people know that "The Spitfire Grill" was financed by Gregory Productions, the for-profit arm of the Sacred Heart League, a Roman Catholic charitable organization based in Mississippi.
Unfortunately, this fact has only garnered negative press for a film that originally opened to good reviews. It won the Audience Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and Castle Rock Entertainment paid $10 million for the distribution rights, a record for an independent film at Sundance. Everyone thought "Spitfire's" underlying themes of forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption were a welcome relief after a summer of mindless violence supplied by films like "Independence Day" and "Twister" . . . until they found out a Christian organization was behind it.
After discovering this, some members of the movie industry became suspicious, and determined it was wrong for a film to have subtle religious messages worked into a story, even when those messages fit with the flow of the plot and the characters involved (never mind that some of the greatest films ever made, including those by Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese have been religious in nature).
These cynics seemed to be of the opinion that, if a movie is going to have the gall to uphold basic Judeo-Christian ethics, there must be some sort of a disclaimer before the film starts so the viewers can be aware of this and brace themselves against any morals and values they might be subjected to on screen.
The fact is, "The Spitfire Grill" is not an explicitly religious film. And for those who thought it was one of the many underhanded weapons of the Religious Right, they should know that Lee David Zlotoff, the writer-director, isn't even Christian -- he's Jewish. No ministers are in the film, and the only church shown is old and deserted. There is never any mention of Jesus or salvation, and there are only minimal, mostly secular references to God and Heaven.
But despite all this, one question still persists: is the film any good?
Answer: "The Spitfire Grill" is a good film, but it is constantly walking a dangerously thin line between true emotion, and gross sentimentality. Like any good tear-jerker, it can draw cynicism as easily as it can draw tears, depending on the mindset of the viewer.
The film takes place in a rural town in Maine called Gilead, filmed in a series of postcard-quality shots of forests and waterfalls. One night, a quiet, seemingly sullen young woman named Percy Talbot, played with extraordinary grace by relative newcomer Alison Elliott, comes to town. Elliott assumes the role with wonderful ease, and she has the perfect kind of sweet, simple face that conveys the wide range of emotions needed to suit her character. Even when she delivers lines like, "Do you think that if a wound runs deep enough, the healing of it can hurt worse than the actual wound itself?", she's somehow still believable.
Percy comes to Gilead after spending five years in a Maine prison for manslaughter (it's not as simple as it seems) and takes a job at a homely diner called the Spitfire Grill, which seems to be the focal point of the whole town. It is readily apparent she doesn't fit in with the townsfolk, but she manages to befriend a simple woman named Shelby Goddard (Marcia Gay Harden), and eventually win the respect of the diner's owner, crotchety old Hannah Ferguson, a terribly unoriginal character overplayed by the usually reliable Ellen Burstyn. As the plot moves along its course, it becomes obvious that Hannah has as much reason to be crotchety as Percy has reason to be sullen.
The main focus of "The Spitfire Grill" is showing how Percy's presence in the dying little town gives life to everyone else in different ways. Her being there seems to give Hannah hope, and Shelby the courage to finally stand up to her overbearing husband, Nahum (Will Patton). This is mostly shown through dialogue-heavy scenes in which the actors try to one-up each other on who has the best Northeast Maine accent. They never go to the market, they go to mah-keht.
"The Spitfire Grill" is at its best when it's simple and truthful, and not relying on a plot heavy with contrivances and conveniences. The best moments aren't found in Hannah's trying to sell the grill through an essay contest, or Percy's relationship with a mysterious hermit (ala Boo Radley, complete with leaving little gifts for each other).
Instead, the best moments come when Alison Elliott embodies the character of Percy in such a way that you can literally see in her face the excruciating pain of trying to escape a past that won't go away. The simple beauty of the film is that one girl's pain can be transformed into not only her own redemption, but the redemption of so many others who never even realized they needed it.
©1996 James Kendrick