This week on a “very special” installment of Video Vault we will be learning a few lessons from 1996’s character study, The Spitfire Grill. This was a popular VHS for my high school teachers to throw on when they ran out of things to teach at the end of the year. Directed by MacGuyver creator, Lee David Zlotoff, The Spitfire Grill has a somewhat interesting origin. As far back as the 1970’s, Roger M. Courts, director of a Roman Catholic non-profit, Sacred Heart League, Inc., had been looking for a script that featured Judeo-Christian values for the organization to produce. Apparently unhappy with the hundreds of scripts he had read throughout the 80’s, he just decided to come up with his own. After being introduced to Zlotoff in the early 90’s, Zlotoff wrote the full script based on Court’s idea. Entirely funded by Sacred Heart League, Inc., the film was shot in Peacham, Vermont in 35 days and stars Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn, and Marcia Gay Harden. Sold out screenings and the winning of the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival prompted Castle Rock Entertainment to purchase the movie’s rights for $10 million, the largest amount ever paid for an independent feature to date. The film opened wide to mixed reviews and a disappointing box office. However, profits from the film’s sale were used to construct a K-8th grade school with a cafeteria named “The Spitfire Grill”! That’s not a bad legacy for a little film that tackles issues of rape, murder, psychological domestic abuse, and the Vietnam War veteran condition.
The Spitfire Grill opens with Percy’s (Elliott) release from jail (prior to the events of the film she murdered her stepfather who raped her) and arrival in a tiny economically depressed town in Maine. Hannah (Burstyn), a gruff widow who’s son never returned home from Vietnam, agrees to let Percy stay with her and work at her restaurant (of which the film is titled). Everything is everybody’s business in a small town and not everyone is happy about the new girl’s arrival, but Percy’s intelligence and optimism quickly wins her over with Hannah and Shelby (Harden), the grill’s timid waitress. Hannah has unsuccessfully been trying to sell The Spitfire for some time, so Percy comes up with an idea to hold an essay contest with $100 entries, the winner gets the grill. Thanks to some of Percy’s well-connected friends (convicts still in jail who represent the Maine Tourism office from behind bars (?)), the contest goes national and the town unites to read all the letters that are sent in. At some point Percy befriends a mysterious hermit living in the woods who turns out to be Hannah’s long-lost son. Also, there is a romantic subplot between her and a local boy. Shelby’s friendship with Percy and the success of the contest empower Shelby to stand up for herself against her abusive husband. Ignorance and miscommunication lead to an over-the-top melodramatic finale in which the contest money goes missing and Percy and the hermit get blamed. Hannah helps Percy escape from jail so she can warn her son of the oncoming Beauty and the Beast-esque manhunt, but she gets swept away by a river and falls to her death over a rocky waterfall in the process. Hannah and her son are reunited and the whole town learns about compassion and not judging books by their covers. Redemption, blind hatred, compassion, and female empowerment are the blatant themes.
This movie has a really strong first 90 minutes, but concludes with a far too absurd last 15. It definitely suffers from ‘one writer, zero re-writes’ syndrome and is a bit too reminiscent of Crash with its third act craziness. Performances from the leads, however, are fantastic (of course with Burstyn and Harden in the mix how could it not!!). We really get to know our three leading ladies and I would say that as a light character study it is a success. The town and its inhabitants definitely fall on the cliche side. Being shot in rural Vermont, the setting is gorgeous. James Horner’s score is probably too good for the material. Ultimately, it is a mediocre small-town-American-cafe-movie, but I really did find myself rooting for the town’s contest and it has a nice message without being preachy. Thankfully, it mostly shies away from on-the-nose dialogue. In 2001, a successful musical stage adaptation of the story was produced with a brighter, less death-filled conclusion. I think that is probably an improvement!