The Spitfire Grill - * * 1/2*

The Spitfire Grill is a thoroughly sappy and manipulative drama, but it manages to be moving nonetheless. Alison Elliott stars as Percy Talbott, a young ex-con who travels to small town Gilead, Maine, to start a new life. The local sheriff hooks her up with Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn), the crusty old owner of The Spitfire Grill, a local diner. Percy helps to run the diner in exchange for room and board. However, the whole town (in the traditionally nosy manner) is curious about Percy’s past…particularly Hannah’s suspicious nephew, Nahum (Will Patton), who thinks the worst of Hannah’s new helper. Nahum’s wife, Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden), thinks otherwise, and quickly becomes Percy’s good friend. The rest of the film deals with Percy coming to terms with her own crimes, and the town’s reaction to her. Naturally, as one expects, Hannah’s crusty exterior melts halfway in, and she accepts Percy. She even entertains Percy’s idea of raffling off the hard-to-sell Spitfire Grill with an essay contest. After seeing this film, I was struck by how overly manipulative it was. All of its plot twists are incredibly obvious, and it throws nearly every trick in the book at you to tweak your emotions. The even more amazing thing is that it works, for which I credit the trio of strong center performances. Alison Elliott makes an impressive debut as the angelic Percy, struggling to get a second chance. Ellen Burstyn is grizzled and catankerous, but never descends into hammy action. Marcia Gay Harden is subdued in her role as the repressed wife, but also turns in a fine performance. Their seemingly effortless job of acting draw you into the story, and all obvious contrivances aside, you go along with it. You may feel ashamed for being so blatantly manipulated afterwards, but never while you’re watching it.

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