FILE THIS ONE under "Chick Flicks--Rural," alongside How to Make An American Quilt and several shelves below Crimes of the Heart and Fried Green Tomatoes. Now don't get me wrong. I adore women's movies, especially for their capacity to produce indelible images: Think of Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale, dumping the contents of her husband's closet into his sportscar, setting it on fire, and then smoking a cigarette. Or Bagdad Cafe, in which a fat German woman drives Jack Palance silly with lust. Or Oprah Winfrey's staggering "All my life I had to fight" speech in The Color Purple. Or Thelma and Louise's response to the truckdriver who thinks he's a phenomenally erotic catch. The genre has so much potential for originality, truth, and gut-twisting humor that it's doubly annoying to see a women's picture that's merely sentimental.
All of which is a long way of saying that I would have been in the minority at the Sundance Festival, where The Spitfire Grill won standing ovations, as well as the Audience Award. Apparently the buzz was so loud that the film was bought by Ted Turner's Castle Rock Entertainment for $11 million--the largest sum ever fetched by a festival film.
It's based on a classic story: Stranger comes to small town and teaches everyone about tolerance (see E.T.). After doing five years in the pen for manslaughter, Perchance "Percy" Talbot (Alison Elliott), self-described white trash, heads to the depressed hamlet of Gilead, Maine to start over. (Though why any halfway unique individual would go to a small town in search of acceptance is beyond me.) Percy asks for a job at the Spitfire Grill, a cozy, wood-panelled cafe suffused with the kind of soft-focus haze that's a lame (and male) visual shorthand for the female realm. Hannah (played by Ellen Burstyn, a veteran of women's flicks) is the crone with a heart of gold who owns the Grill. She's skeptical of Percy at first, but when her dog warms up to the girl she changes her mind (thud).
Hannah has a married son named Nahum (pronounced "Nam," as in the war), and she aches for her mysteriously absent elder son, who participated in said conflict. Percy is the whisper of the town, but uses a Zen-like openness to discourage gossip. She collects geological trivia, smokes on the porch, and reads The Odyssey while washing dishes (thunk). She's kind, funny, and gentle, but doesn't take much crap. She wears cozy, androgynous flannels, is gorgeous without makeup, has no apparent
sexuality and virtually no temper. She's great. Perfect. In fact, I've never met anyone so wonderful. Nam's meek housewife Shelby starts working at the cafe too, after Percy botches breakfast (see The Color Purple). Women's work seems to work wonders for everyone's self-esteem.
Along with these rather stock figures we have the Superfluous Cute Guy, Joe (Kieran Mulroney) and a secretive loner who lives in the woods. The actors are fine, but they're hampered by painful dialogue ("What goes on?" Nahum asks sternly as Shelby runs out of the house). The film hits bottom with a pearly montage as Hannah enlists the whole town to help her read through some 2,000 essays (part of a contest to sell the cafe). Men in pickup trucks do it, kids on bikes do it, geezers painting a fence do it, even guys fishing next to offroad vehicles do it. With such sun-dappled sidewalks and neighborly affection, I felt like I was watching a 1984 Ronald Reagan campaign spot.
Of course, there's some in these parts don't take too kindly to strangers, and the serenity can't last. We're jolted by a sudden injection of testosterone and the threat of Percy's persecution. (Did I mention E.T.?) She becomes the object of a witch hunt, made all the more egregious for her carefully demonstrated chastity and total innocence. Tug. Pull. Ouch. Poor Percy. She deserves a town--make that a movie--where real people live.