Thursday, January 25, 2007


THE SPITFIRE GRILL (1996, USA, screenplay and direction by Lee David Zlotoff)
You suppose if a wound goes so deep, the healing of it might hurt as bad as what caused it?

This well-meaning little film really works for lots of people. It won the Audience Award at the Sundance Festival. The curious thing is how badly it misfires for those of us who don't fall under its spell.

It's the story of a young woman released from prison who sets out to make a new start in Gilead, a town she's only read about – a town at least as wounded as she is, ever since the local golden lad left for Vietnam, never to be seen again. She gets a room above the local eatery and when the proprietress suffers a nasty fall, ends up running the place – at first badly, then very well indeed once she's joined by the town's other lovely outcast.

Financed by a Catholic aid organization in Mississippi (Gregory Productions, the fundraising arm of The Sacred Heart's League) and directed by Jewish director David Zlotoff (who describes himself as "extremely religious"), the film doesn't deal explicitly with religion, apart from one character who takes refuge in the dying town's boarded-up church, and another who gets off by herself in the hills to sing "There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole…" But the story is packed (too packed?) with redemptive themes, and New England character names lend Old Testament overtones: from Hannah, who grieves for a son, to Nahum, namesake of the pessimist who prophesied "nothing can heal your wound: your injury is fatal." In the tension between Gilead's balm and Nahum's curse lies the dramatic premise of the film.

The photography – of the quaint New England town and the wooded hills surrounding – is undeniably beautiful. Too beautiful: I kept thinking this was an ad for life insurance or the Vermont travel bureau. The acting is generally praised, even by those who aren't sold on the movie, but to my taste even the strongest performance – Alison Elliott in the central role, bringing something like Jody Foster's scrappy winsomeness – is undermined by affectation. Nobody here could be mistaken for a human being: I could never forget these were movie characters.

For this viewer, there's too much of everything: too much prettiness, too much acting, and far too much plot. I don't want to bully this sweet little film by dwelling on its narrative excesses, and I certainly don't want to put you off seeing it if you might find yourself one of its many enthusiastic fans. If you're the sort whose critical vocabulary tends toward words like "sentimental," "contrived" or "predictable," skip it – you'll wear out your thesaurus. But if you're okay with the occasional Hallmark TV movie, or can overlook their shortcomings enough to love heart-felt movies like, say, RETURN TO ME or SAVING GRACE (the pope one, not the dope one), you should maybe consider hunting down THE SPITFIRE GRILL. There's a thin purple line between sentiment and sentimentality: your affection or distaste for this film will be determined by where you draw that line.


Available at Videomatica

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