City Paper is not for tourists
A problem drama on steroids, The Spitfire Grill takes on xenophobia, incest, loneliness, child abuse, dying small towns, post-traumatic-stress syndrome, and saving forests by discovering the medical value of underappreciated plants. Writer/director Lee David Zlotoff, a TV veteran making his feature debut, matches the thematic glut with a surfeit of plot complications. Despite the movie’s fevered quest for relevance, however, this is a classic story—the classic story, some might say.
Percy Talbott (ex-model Alison Elliott) is a just-released ex-con who grew up in Ohio but has learned all about Maine during the last five years; her prison job was answering calls to the Maine tourist-info board. Based on her now-extensive knowledge of a state she’s mostly seen from behind bars, Percy heads for Gilead, an uptight small town (actually Peacham, Vt.) that’s been dwindling since the local quarry closed. For some reason, the sheriff convinces crotchety Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn) to hire Percy to work at the Spitfire Grill, supposedly named after the World War II exploits of Hannah’s late husband. (As Heavy demonstrated, owners of marginal small-town cafes are always ready to hire a waitress they don’t need, as long as she’s crucial to the plot.)
Hannah soon breaks her leg, which necessitates turning over more of her duties to Percy. When it becomes clear that Percy can’t cook, the kitchen is appropriated by Shelby Goddard (Marcia Gay Harden), the browbeaten but ready-to-bloom wife of Hannah’s officious nephew, Nahum (Will Patton). Percy’s most important new assignment actually has nothing to do with the cafe; she’s now the one who puts out a bag of food every night for a mysterious man who lives in the nearby woods. Since they’re both abused outsiders, Percy and the man (John M. Jackson) gradually bond. He doesn’t speak, but she announces that she will call him “Johnny B.”
Percy and Shelby also become pals, and “old sour apple” Hannah warms to the young woman. (It turns out she’s been crabby ever since her golden-boy son suffered some terrible fate in the Vietnam war.) Percy even attracts a suitor, Joe Sperling (Kieran Mulroney), an amiable dullard who learns to appreciate the local forests after seeing them through her wonder-struck eyes. Nahum still distrusts the newcomer, however, and he becomes even more suspicious after Percy suggests that Hannah dispose of the Grill, which has been “for sale for 10 years,” with a raffle like one she learned of while answering phones for the tourist board. For $100 and an essay on why the entrant wants the cafe, anyone can have a chance at winning the place. When the cash starts to arrive—no checks, insists Hannah—Nahum is sure that Percy has some scam planned. Checking with the authorities, he finds that Percy did time for manslaughter.
With the split-second timing of farce, Percy, Nahum, Johnny B., and the cash all come together for the film’s final crisis. There’s a series of revelations (not all of them unexpected) that explain Percy’s pain and restore her reputation. As a result of the day’s events, many of the town’s maladies are cured and its delusions lifted. The cost to Percy, however, is terrible.
The production of Spitfire was financed by Gregory Productions, the for-profit arm of a Roman Catholic charity, the Scared Heart League, so it’s probably not coincidence that the film is outfitted both with nonsectarian hints for righteous living and direct references to the Christian tradition. (Zlotoff, who’s Jewish, denies that the film is explicitly religious.) Gilead is a Biblical name, of course, and provides the cue for Percy to touch Johnny B. by singing “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” The local church has long been abandoned, but it still serves as a sanctuary for Shelby, who introduces Percy to its quiet power; it’s there that Percy tells Shelby of the torments of her young life.
Beyond such touches, however, Percy’s story can be seen as a movie-of-the-week retelling of the passion of Christ. She’s preceded in the wilderness by “Johnny B.,” a name Percy says is derived from the Chuck Berry song, but which could be a hip contemporary variant of John the Baptist. Like the young Jesus in the temple, Percy intimidates her elders with her knowledge of their world. Though persecuted by unbelievers, Percy takes on the sins of Gilead, and her martyrdom leads to the town’s reinvigoration (if not resurrection). In the end, her betrayer confesses his crime, and spring comes to the frozen land.
Where some viewers will consider this blasphemous, most will simply find it overwrought. Yet such an earnest interpretation of the film is almost required. Without it, Zlotoff’s narrative machinations become absurd, and his treatment of Percy seems sadistic. (Protagonists of Hollywood movies aren’t supposed to take this kind of abuse without a significant reward.) As a ’90s woman’s picture, Spitfire is routine and mostly predictable; as a religious allegory, however, it briefly taps into something dark and unexpected.
It’s widely agreed that Hollywood blockbusters are destroying formerly vital film industries worldwide, but in their small way movies like A Modern Affair are just as harmful. Art-house films with sitcom souls, these small-budget efforts take up space that could be devoted to more adventurous Anglo-American fare or the dwindling number of foreign-language films released in the U.S. these days.
Produced, directed, and co-written by Vern Oakley, a former actor who’s directed plays, a PBS series, and corporate films, Affair offers the customary perspective on busy Manhattan executives, women whose biological clocks are about to run down, and men who can’t commit. Indeed, there’s nothing significant here that wasn’t already discussed, albeit more stridently, a few months back in Denise Calls Up. At least that film had some twists, however contrived; Affair could hardly be more predictable.
A successful executive with a firm that creates corporate-ID programs, Grace (Lisa Eichhorn) has given up on marriage but not on motherhood. After weakly resisting the suggestion of her pal Elaine (Caroline Aaron), she visits a sperm bank, where she chooses the seed of a donor of Swiss/Italian heritage and slightly below-normal height. Successfully impregnated, she begins to crave more details of the father. So Elaine poses as a temp and hacks the sperm bank’s computerized files, and soon the two women are on the road to a small town upstate, where Peter (Stanley Tucci) runs a gallery of his nature photos.
Though his photographs reveal a sensitive guy, Peter is not sentimental about family life. He’s estranged from his parents, sleeping with a married woman, and happy to think that he’ll never know the children that will result from his regular trips to the sperm bank. He and Grace hit it off, though, and soon they’re having romantic picnics and sharing confidences as they wander through the bucolic countryside. Still, it takes a while for Grace to tell Peter that she’s pregnant—and who the father is. This never looks like the sort of movie, however, where things might not turn out for the best.
The small cast and lack of star power are virtually the only evidence that Affair is not major-studio product. Perhaps Grace and Peter look a little more convincingly middle-aged than Hollywood would dare—Peter, in fact, is clearly too old to still be peddling his semen to a sperm bank—but the fate that Oakley and writer Paul Zimmerman have devised for them is as corny as the film’s Jan Hammer score. Like the guarded psychobabble Grace and Peter exchange, the film’s theme and development are utterly routine and secondhand. Indeed, Affair is almost tedious enough to prompt a re-evaluation of the comic possibilities of a movie in which, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger gets knocked up.CP