American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“The Spitfire Grill” won the audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which says less for the audience than for the movie. It's an unabashedly manipulative, melodramatic tearjerker with plot twists that Horatio Alger would have been embarrassed to use, and the fact that it's so well acted only confuses the issue.
The movie takes place in Gilead, Maine, another one of those small towns like Salome, Texas, and Whistle Stop, Ala., where everybody knows one another and they all gather every day to trade the latest news. Towns like this don't much exist anymore, except in sitcoms, where the characters are constantly “dropping in” on one another to prod the plot and explain the latest developments.
Gilead, so far north that the locals call other Americans “flatlanders,” has just had a stranger come to town. Her name is Perchance Talbott, Percy for short, and she has chosen the town after getting out of prison. In a nice little scene, the local sheriff (Gailard Sartain) lines up a job for her as a waitress at the local restaurant, which is run by an older woman named Hannah (Ellen Burstyn) and already has a veteran waitress named Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden). It also has a regular customer named Joe (Kieran Mulroney).
Sometimes as a movie critic you have to knock yourself sharply on the ear to dislodge the last movie you've seen and pay attention to this one. Watching this plot unfold, I was remembering last week's “Heavy,” which also premiered at Sundance; its cafe was run by an older woman (Shelley Winters), and had a veteran waitress (Deborah Harry) and a young waitress (Liv Tyler), and had a regular customer whose name was Leo, not Joe, although he was played by Joe Grifasi. Also echoing in the caverns of my memory were several other movies about stalwart women running cafes and striding above the local gossip: “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Staying Together” and of course “Bagdad Cafe.” In “The Spitfire Grill,” which weaves several fairly over worn feminist strands into its quilt, everyone of course immediately gossips about where Percy came from and why she would want to settle in Gilead. (Ever notice how in the movies people who believe they live in the best place on Earth are always resentful when an outsider wants to move there?) Percy puts an end to the gossip by making a loud announcement at lunchtime: “I've been in prison. So now you know.” Yes, but what was she in prison for? I wondered. And then my Automated Mental Plot Analyzer hummed to life, and suggested that in a movie of this sort it is almost inevitable that she committed her crime in self-defense against an abusive man. Is that what did happen? My lips are sealed.