Centered on a diner in a small town, “Care of the Spitfire Grill” recalls such recent films as “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Gas, Food, Lodging” in its bittersweet attitude toward the values of a close-knit community. The emotionally charged material is abetted by a strong cast, but the familiarity of the subject matter limits the picture to niche audiences. Theatrical prospects are more in the modest “Gas, Food” range, with strong ancillaries and potential international playoff in upscale markets.
The tale focuses on Percy Talbott (Alison Elliott), recently released from jail and, thanks to a progressive warden, relocated to the quiet village of Gilead, Maine. Percy finds work as a waitress and a room above the Spitfire Grill, run by the slightly cranky Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn). But the folks are touchy about strangers, and Percy’s open declaration of her last job at the state institution doesn’t assuage that wariness.
Particularly unforgiving is Nahum Goddard (Will Patton), a local businessman who views any change in Gilead as a potential threat to plans of attracting mining concerns for the resuscitation of the local granite quarry. He’s especially concerned when Hannah takes a tumble and is ordered to take bed rest. Nahum sends his mousy wife, Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden), to assist the young woman and, tacitly, to spy on her. Instead, the two women become friends.
Writer-director Lee David Zlotoff has devised a complex tale that tends to bog down as he attempts to weave together its many plot strands. The drama pivots on a contest — hatched by Percy and developed by the other women — devised to sell off the eatery. The raffle is a national newspaper essay scheme in which participants send $ 100 and a letter explaining why they’d like to operate the grill. Naturally, the plan makes the cautious townsfolk edgy.
The contest is complicated by myriad personal dilemmas. But far more destructive to the story is the filmmaker’s attempt to interlace Percy’s dark past, Hannah’s grief for a son who was killed in Vietnam, and a mysterious, unseen woodsman who chops logs late at night in exchange for a sackful of canned goods.
Narratively, this dramatic balancing act requires a far more skilled craftsman. Too often the helmer overstates his intent with long dialogues when simple action would suffice. Still, to Zlotoff’s credit, he eschews pat, happy endings (although the picture does conclude on an emotionally uplifting note).
While the story tends to falter, the performers never waver in the conviction of their characterizations. Burstyn and Patton have more obvious roles, with the latter perilously skimming the edge of evil in his misguided stance as the local conscience. Most fascinating is Harden as a downtrodden wife who comes into her own without fully losing an innate vacuousness.
Finally, it’s Elliott who anchors the piece. In a daunting role layered with natural smarts, youthful energy and painful regret, she weathers the mood shifts with aplomb and grace.
Conveyed with visual simplicity, “Care of the Spitfire Grill” effectively utilizes the beauty of New England settings. Although a beat too slow and a note too explicit, it has sufficient charm to elicit the forgiveness that underlies its theme.