I missed Spitfire Grill when it was out in the theaters, though it got wildly enthusiastic comments from viewers as diverse as my daughter and my mother. So I rented it last night and really enjoyed the first half of the film. It's the sort of movie with almost no surprises, but some of the details are a hoot, especially the location of the Maine Travel Bureau operators.
We're introduced to a very young prison inmate named Percy, played by the remarkable Allison Elliott. She's extremely creative and an eager learner, but clearly a person without much education and a rough past. Upon her release she's sent to a small town in what's supposed to be rural Maine. She goes to work for Hannah, the owner of the Spitfire Grill.
The townspeople are a series of horrific cliches, being so small-minded they hardly even talk to the young woman, even to the point of not ordering their meals from her in the grill. This ludicrous behavior does go away pretty fast, so most of the first half of the movie or so deals with Percy trying to adjust to life outside, with Hannah adjusting to Percy and yet another debilitating injury and with Shelby who comes to help them both. And the first half of the movie or so is very pleasant and reasonably-true-to-life, almost like a small British movie.
The script is interesting in that parts of it don't insult the viewer's intelligence. Some things happen in the background that later become very important in the film, but the writer doesn't feel the need to batter the viewer over the head with them. So I felt the script had lots of potential, at least in the first half.
There are a few problems with the movie overall, and they probably never bothered the average viewer, but, being a New Englander, they bothered me. The movie is supposed to be set up in rural, central Maine, somewhere near Lewiston or Bethel. However, that area tends to be filled with forests and lakes, and I don't remember so much of it having been cleared for farms. It was actually filmed in northeastern Vermont, probably because rural Maine is just too remote. So you get some beautiful shots of Vermont countryside, and a particularly sweeping shot of Lake Willoughby gap (where one large mountain became two smaller ones back during the last ice age) in the distance. Similarly, the accents of almost everyone in the movie is likewise "grafted on." Just like rural Vermont and rural Maine look different, an upstate Maine resident doesn't have the identical speech patterns of an upstate Vermonter. Its the sort of thing that it's better to just let the folks speak without any accent at all than to force them to sound so unnatural.
But these are kind of minor things that no one noticed. The acting, especially of the women in this picture, is quite good, so there's plenty to hold your interest. However, what surprises me is that no one ever mentioned the gross misogyny that permeates almost every frame of the last third of this film. The Catholic Church, a major financier of this film, has shown once again how much it really has a major problem with how it treats women. I remember hearing a church representative talk about how life-affirming this movie is. Hardly. The movie goes absolutely out of its way to promote the "woman as martyr" image.
Lots of spoilers follow.
The first hint of the kind of sick direction this movie was going take was in Percy's reaction to a man named Joe. Joe took a shine to her and asks her out, takes her for walks, etc. Percy seems to like him, but doesn't want to get too close. Finally, Joe asks her to marry him. She turns him down because he wants children and she can't have them. He says he doesn't care about that, but she's adamant.
Hannah is very bitter about her son who went to Viet Nam and didn't come back. Well, at least on the surface. It's clear her son went AWOL and is hiding and its Hannah's insufferable pride and the small town memories of her husband's valor in WW II that helps keep her son away from the help he so obviously needs. He's kind of a Bo-Radleyesque character, but this is the '90s not the '30s so keeping the son "a secret" just seems wrong.
And then there's Nahum, Shelby's husband and Hannah's nephew. He's a quietly viscious man who is nasty to Shelby and to Percy. He's supposed to have "redeemed" himself at the end of the movie by owning up to one terrible wrong he committed, but the scene was just terribly awkward.
And there's the situation that landed Percy in prison. Near the end of the movie, she tells Shelby her story. She was sexually abused by her stepfather and made pregnant by him when she was 16. Since this movie was financed by the Catholic Church, she, naturally, loves the baby of the man who raped her, and is devastated when he beats her so badly that she looses the baby and her ability to ever have children again. She is kidnapped out of the hospital by this man and kills him in self defense. You have to ask yourself what kind of incompetent lawyer did she have, that landed her in jail for even 30 seconds much less five years for manslaughter.
As you might have guessed by now, Percy dies by the end of the movie in trying to warn the AWOL son that the police are trying to find him because they think she gave him money "she stole" from Hannah. And the lesson the town learns is to be nice to strange women who come to Gilead to attempt to have a new start at life.
This picture could have been life-affirming if only it hadn't sunk to so much misongyny and melodrama. It's not so obvious as those movie that promote violence against women, but it's almost more insidious.