Spitfire Grill [1996]

This well-acted drama won the Audience award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, causing a festival ruckus when several distributors entered a bidding war in response to the movie's positive buzz. When the movie was finally released, audience and critical response provided a sudden reality check: the movie's good to a point, but hardly worth the fuss it received at Sundance. Packing a miniseries' worth of melodrama into 117 minutes, the story centers on a young woman named Percy (Alison Elliott) who served prison time for manslaughter and arrives in a small town in Maine with hopes of beginning a new life. She works as a waitress in the Spitfire Grill, owned by Hannah (Ellen Burstyn), whose gruff exterior conceals a kind heart and precious little tolerance for the grill's regular customers, who cast their suspicions on Percy's mysterious past. The plot unfolds when Hannah holds a $100-per-entry essay contest to find a new owner for the grill. There's ample mystery surrounding the collected money, a local hermit who's really Hannah's shell-shocked Vietnam veteran son, and circumstances that lead the locals to adopt a lynch-mob mentality at Percy's expense. By the time Percy is nearly drowning in a raging river, The Spitfire Grill has taken its melodrama a few steps 'round the bend. Fine acting is the movie's saving grace, however, and newcomer Alison Elliott anchors The Spitfire Grill with a subtle, emotionally involving performance. Thanks to Elliott and Burstyn, you don't have to feel too guilty if you find yourself reaching for a Kleenex as the closing credits roll. --Jeff Shannon

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