If you see this movie without being touched on some level, if you feel sharp by shooting it down for its flaws, then we might not do well eating dinner together.
The virtues of "The Spitfire Grill" so overwhelm its faults that only the truly jaded will be distracted from the power of the film. Taken on its lightest level, this is the story of Percy (Alison Elliott), a young woman just released from prison who takes a bus to a new start as waitress in the Spitfire Grill, a local institution in the town of Gilead, Maine.
Hannah (Ellen Burstyn), crusty owner of the grill, gives Percy a room and a job and not much else at the beginning, as is entirely appropriate for a New Englander of few words and much strength. When Hannah is injured, her unassertive relative, Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden), steps in to help Percy learn to cook, and steps into their lives as well. Shelby is otherwise occupied by ironing husband Nahum's shirts by color, according to his need.
Throw in a nosy postmistress, a mysterious forest hermit, and Nahum, who is determined to undermine the newcomer (he just has to make her bad), and you have the story of a small New England town fueled by gossip and feeding on trouble.
But step into the next layer. Alison Elliott, flawless as Percy, gives a radiant performance of absolute consistency. This actress never falls out of character, and she conveys so much with the subtlety of her expression that we find ourselves riveted to her eyes, waiting for clues to the depth of the story.
Ellen Burstyn is perfect as Hannah--steely, resolute, unaccepting of help, deeply wounded by something we don't understand. Marcia Gay Harden, even though she misses the Maine accent that Burstyn nails, delivers an amazing passage from servitude to self-possession. And the supporting players are good. So here you have a cast that can lift any story beyond its basic elements.
Now think about metaphor--for America losing itself in Vietnam, for mothers losing themselves in their children, for a small-town mistrust of the outsider--and you have a movie, at last, that takes a big risk to touch people deeply.
A critic has to look for flaws, especially when swept away by excellence. O.K., then: a town suddenly too cooperative, too cheerful, a town made whole too fast. But if we are dealing here with a parable, what better to make us see a truth than to show the healing power of a vision?
"There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole..." is yet another level beyond a mere critic; if obvious, it hints at truth. This is a movie that provokes each of us to respond from our own experience. Such a daring invitation would fail completely in lesser hands, but this is a cast that enthralls. Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn, and Marcia Gay Harden are superb. If you see this movie without being touched on some level, if you feel sharp by shooting it down for its flaws, then we might not do well eating dinner together.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 495
Studio : Castle Rock
Rating : PG-13
Running Time: 1h53m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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