The Spitfire Grill

(Lee David Zlotoff, USA, 1996)


There is an icky strain of contemporary American films that seem to hark nostalgically back to some imagined golden era in that country’s literary and theatrical tradition. They are films of small town life, often tales of prejudiced, enclosed communities confronted by a mysterious stranger.


Pain and conflict appear in these tales, but essentially they are testaments to human growth and the miracles that illuminate the everyday. In other words, they are standard feel-good films, but with a conservative, old-fashioned veneer, rather than the more strident, high-energy gloss of Spielberg's good-vibe extravaganzas.


In this mode, The Spitfire Grill arrived close on the heels of the woeful The Grass Harp (1996). Percy (Alison Elliot), released from jail, makes her way to the town of Gilead. There she obtains a job in a run-down diner owned by an ailing widow (Ellen Burstyn). Percy must confront the usual gauntlet of petty suspicions before joining – and eventually galvanising – the local community.


There is a very mild mystery-intrigue at work here: a drawn-out question as to the exact nature of the crime for which Percy was jailed, and what this information might imply about her current psychological state. But this seems to me a useless conceit for writer-director Lee David Zlotoff to exploit, for there is never really any doubt that Percy is a blindingly good, almost angelic character.


There are aspects of this film – such as the ambience of the diner, the central presence of a soulful teenage girl, and some slightly incredible plot manoeuvres – that closely recall James Mangold's Heavy (1996). But where that film lifted itself to a level beyond mere naturalism through careful and intricate stylisation, this one plods along unimaginatively like an episode of the ‘70s television series The Waltons.


The Spitfire Grill is a terribly sentimental movie right down to the mushy, life-goes-on ending. It is humanist to a fault: no character is allowed to behave in a reprehensible manner for very long, and all the women appear to literally glow with wisdom and compassion.


That said, the film has its pleasures, mostly related to shrewd casting. Elliot, Will Patton and Marica Gay Harden are fine, fresh actors, and Zlotoff has blended them into an affecting, understated ensemble. Only Burstyn, surprisingly, sticks out of this group: her feisty old lady mannerisms are irritating and overplayed.

© Adrian Martin November 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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