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A View to a Grill

Eric Lee

Nice Work If You Can Get It: Young Percy (Alison Elliott, right) keeps the short-order restaurant owned by crusty Hannah (Ellen Burystn) in business.

It takes a village to keep a 'Spitfire Grill' running

By Richard von Busack

WITH ITS sinister title and haunted heroine, The Spitfire Grill ought to be, but isn't, a Stephen King adaptation. The film tells the tale of a young ex-convict who brings hope and sunshine into the lives of the defeated old people in a Maine village.

Percy, short for Perchance, Talbott (Allison Elliott), after a stretch in the Maine State Prison, is given a job at the short-order Spitfire Grill run by crusty Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn). Hannah isn't getting around as well as she ought to be, and so the young girl keeps the Spitfire going. She even decides to institute an essay contest; for $100, entrants can win a chance to own the restaurant.

Two men complicate the blissful picture: Nahum (Will Patton), the mean husband of the grill's other employee, the slow-witted Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden); and Eli (John M. Jackson), a sort of wild man of the forest. It's Percy's duty to leave a bag of food out for Eli now and again. The revelation of Eli's identity--he came unhinged in Vietnam--prompts the telling of Percy's own sad story; in turn, the disappearance of the contest money prompts trouble, and the movie comes to a tragic but hopeful conclusion.

The Spitfire Grill is a Shirley Temple movie for the New Age in which the girl of bad background meets and overcomes prejudice with her selflessness and charm. If Shirley were making movies today, they'd probably devise a backstory about incest for her, too, just as is done for Percy's character. First-time director/writer Lee David Zlotoff is the man who invented MacGyver, and the movie plays like prestige television--softly, tastefully.

It's asking a lot from a young actress like Elliott to make this relentlessly slick tale breathe and to keep up her end of scenes with an actress as good as Harden. What really makes The Spitfire Grill frustrating is its message-bearing. Zlotoff is trying to tell us something about how it take a village etc. Hence, the wound of Vietnam is healed by the rehabilitation of the village wild man, who tis really just a gentle giant.

Eventually, the town pulls itself together; it turns out that the second-growth lumber there contains some sort of miracle chemical in its bark that's going to give everybody new jobs. All of it seems to happen thanks to the magical, if not to say supernatural, presence of Percy, who creates something special with her apparently unpaid kitchen helping and contest ideas; The Spitfire Grill suggests that the way to rebuild America is undocumented labor and pyramid schemes.

The Spitfire Grill is not meant to be watched so much as cuddled, but as shabbily written as it is, it represents the people-oriented alternative to the bullying actioner. These days, the movie scene is so bereft that it's like the choice of entertainments offered in a town where all that can be done at night is to shop at a stuffed-animal store or to watch the fist fights in the bar next door.

The Spitfire Grill (PG-13; 115 min.), directed and written by Lee David Zlotoff, photographed by Rob Draper and starring Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden.

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From the September 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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