The Spitfire Grill
directed by Lee David Zlotoff
(Castle Rock, 1996)

Welcome to Gilead, the only town in Maine that isn't right out of a Stephen King novel. But it could be. It's the home of the Spitfire Grill, and of Percy Talbot, Maine's latest ex-con, who's come to Gilead to heal her wounds.

The choice is an apt one. Gilead specializes in wounds, especially at rubbing them raw. Once in Gilead, Percy (Alison Elliott) lands a job and a room at the grill, working for Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn), a widow with a bad hip and a worse attitude. But Hannah's an absolute delight compared to her nephew Nahum (Will Patton), who's convinced Percy is there to rob his aunt blind.

Thus begins the first of the many plot lines that make up The Spitfire Grill. Dozens of others follow feverishly. Hannah has Percy leave a bag of canned goods by the woodpile every night before she goes to bed at night; a local stove repairman falls in love with Percy and introduces her to his TV-zombie father; Nahum's long-suffering wife suddenly finds the strength to stand up to him; Percy devises a plan whereby Hannah can make a fortune raffling off the grill; Nahum tries to frame Percy for robbery; Percy learns of Hannah's son Eli, who never "returned" from Vietnam; Hannah and Percy get into a fight over Percy's advances to the phantom birdman of Gilead who takes the canned goods every morning; and a bearded stander is spotted chewing the bark off the stove repairman's trees.

There's more, of course, and that's part of the problems with Spitfire Grill, an otherwise likable film with lots of winsome characters, not the least of whom are Percy and Hannah. But if less is more, then writer-director Lee David Zlotoff, by giving us more, has overwhelmed us with less. Less of Spitfire Grill would have made it a classic. As it is, it's about two-thirds of a classic.

Sadly, those two-thirds are all on the front end. It's not that Spitfire loses its focus. Miraculously, Zlotoff never gets all his plot lines tangled. Neither does it lose steam. But it does lose something else: its originality. Somewhere along the way, Spitfire -- which starts as a character study and evolves into a mystery -- crosses the line into melodrama. And once it does, there's no turning back. Disturbing questions get pat answers, complex issues narrow into a one-dimensional clash of good and evil, and interesting characters go black and white, despite Rob Draper's frosty blue photography. That's unfortunate, as Spitfire Grill is a film with much to say about healing and the human condition. It looks at difficult situations from interesting perspectives and, when it speaks, it's articulate.

Elliott, Burstyn and Harden are all superb in character, and even the small roles are well acted. Had Zlotoff chosen to leave his viewers a little mystery, The Spitfire Grill might have become 1996's movie to remember. As it is, the only mystery is how such a good film could fall apart so fast.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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