Most people would rather hear a good lie over the truth.
This little film, which won the Audience's Choice award at last year's Sundance Film Festival, was picked up by Castle Rock Entertainment for a hefty $10 million for distribution rights. However, not long after, it was lambasted by critics after it was revealed that Gregory Productions, the company that financed the film, was the fund-raising arm of the Sacred Hearts League, a Mississippi Christian charity. Other than a subtle Christ allegory towards the end of the film, this little film is basically your 'stranger-comes-to-town-and-seeks-redemption' story.
You suppose if a wound goes real deep, the healing can hurt almost as bad as what caused it?
Percy Talbot (Allison Elliot) was sentenced to five years for manslaughter and has just been released from prison. She chooses to start over again in a tiny little town called Gilead in the state of Maine. There, the Sheriff gets her a job and a place to stay at The Spitfire Grill, run by a bitter and suspicious old lady named Hanna (Ellen Burstyn). As she works there, she comes to know co-worker Shelby Goddard (Marcia Gay Harden), who is labeled as 'not to smart' by everyone, including her domineering husband Nahum (Will Patton, the good ol' decent-folk sheriff from "Fled"), and a nice neighborhood boy who's sweet on her, Joe (Kieran Mulroney). Through the various subplots that make up the story (Percy investigates a homeless man living out in the woods, Percy plants the idea for an essay contest to help Hanna sell The Spitfire Grill which has been on the market for ten years, Nahum increasing suspicion of the new stranger in town, and Joe's interest in Percy), Percy breathes life back into the quiet town, and helps those around her find independence from the old wounds that they carry, and find worth in what they had long considered worthless.
However, this tearjerker relies on overdone melodramatic conventions and clichés that can be surmised by just having seen this type of film before. These scenes, which you would expect from a movie like "Phenomenon", seem jarringly out of place in a character drama like "The Spitfire Grill". As the essay-writing contest becomes a success, Hanna has everyone in the town help her with evaluating the letters that are pouring in from all over the country. When it is revealed why Percy was charged with manslaughter five years prior, it is no surprise (I reckon must been in self-defense... against some liquored up low-life). (Joe's father, who sits silently in front of the television all day, leaves his house for the very first time in a while and sees the outdoors (puh-lease). A researcher from a big drug company finds that the trees in Gilead harbor a cancer-fighting agent in the bark which will keep Gilead on the map(ditto). This pedestrian plotting results in a film where there are few surprises-- you can see everything coming from a long way off.
She was rowin' a canoe with her baby in it. A couple of sailors who were liquored up caught sight of them on the riverside. They had heard this story that Indian babies knew how to swim from birth, so they decided to test this theory out. They capsized the canoe. And the baby went straight to the bottom. The story didn't say what happened to the mother, but I figured if it's best if she just... drowned too. Don't you think?
But despite these shortcomings, it is a moving story that works because of the strength of the acting by Allison Elliot. It is she who carries the story, who the audience sympathizes with, and the range of her talents convincingly convey the pain, joy, and wonder of Percy Talbot. If you enjoy films like "Heavy", "Fried Green Tomatoes", and "Baghdad Cafe", you'll probably like this one too. Recommended, not for the story, but for the acting.