The Spitfire Grill
1996, PG-13, 117 min. Directed by Lee David Zlotoff. Starring Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden, Will Patton, Kieran Mulroney, Gailard Sartain.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 6, 1996
Human redemption and decency are shown to be very real possibilities in The Spitfire Grill, a movie whose superlative performances outweigh its frequent narrative clichés. Former Ford model Alison Elliott (The Underneath) makes you believe in and care deeply about the character of Percy Talbott, even as you find yourself fidgeting uncomfortably from some of the cornpone dialogue that comes out of her mouth. When combined with the performances of Ellen Burstyn as Hannah Ferguson, the crusty owner of the Spitfire Grill, and Marcia Gay Harden as Shelby Goddard, the timid restaurant helper who befriends Percy, the movie achieves a certain grace that no amount of over-scripting can corrupt. Percy is an ex-con who, upon her release, chooses to reside in the little town of Gilead, Maine where she's been given a job, room, and board at Hannah's Spitfire Grill. Though the townspeople, initially, are suspicious of this stranger, Percy's sincerity and determination slowly win her some converts, and when Hannah becomes incapacitated by a hip injury, Percy rises to the occasion of minding the grill. The real heart of the story, however, is the friendship that's forged by these three different women, as joyful and heartening a viewing experience as they come. Complications, of course, eventually set in but none of the narrative development is half as satisfying as the experience of watching these three women together. The Spitfire Grill has a reputation that precedes it. The movie, which received the audience award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, was quickly bought by Castle Rock Entertainment for the then-unprecedented (and probably overpriced) sum of $10 million. Shortly afterwards, the movie received a lot of querulous press for its acceptance of significant production financing by the Sacred Heart League, an order of priests whose mission is the encouragement of Judeo-Christian values. Does that make The Spitfire Grill a proselytizing tool? Well, yes and no. Faith and religion have little direct voice in the movie. The symbolism of the redemptive power of the town of Gilead is certainly blatant enough, and themes of renewal and regeneration are everywhere. Yet The Spitfire Grill is not a story about religious belief though it would be hard to find another movie with such warm, human decency. Nevertheless, clunky dialogue and a script that you can dissect with the ease of a high-school lab specimen do interrupt otherwise honest moments. This is the first feature film for director Zlotoff, a TV veteran who created MacGyver and was a producer of Remington Steele. You can be certain that it will not be his last.