With her rough edges, foul mouth and short temper, trucker Diane (Michaelle Monaghan) isn’t much for motherhood. That’s not so strange to her 11-year-old son Peter (Jimmy Bennet), since he’d have no idea what to do with a mother even if he got stuck with one. In James Mottern’s spare, unidealistic “Trucker,” that’s just where Peter and Diane find themselves: stuck together like a mad-as-hell cop and a bitter, put-upon prisoner, forced to live out the mother/son relationship they never had.
If you think this translates to a happily-ever-after film about a mother and son reunited at long last, a pairing that will result in cutesy shared moments, think again. Up until the closing scenes, “Trucker” contains no drops of sweetness. Diane calls Peter a “goddamn little shit” or “dude”; to the young boy, Diane is simply “bitch” or “you.” This reunion is anything but happy because both mother and son have grown accustomed to living life on their own terms: Diane as a long-haul trucker who values and forcefully protects her independence and Peter as the loner only child of Len (Benjamin Bratt), his doting father. That stubbornness and aversion to change turns out to be the only thing they have in common, though neither mother nor son cares to dig that deep. While Mottern pushes the characters toward an inevitable reconciliation-of-sorts, it’s refreshing to see Monaghan and Bennett fight like wildcats the whole way, resisting every opportunity to bond.
Not surprisingly, the reason for Diane and Peter’s reunion has nothing to do with sentiment and everything to do with circumstance. Hospitalized with colon cancer, Len isn’t very long for this world, and his fiancee Jenny (Joey Lauren Adams, exquisitely low-key) can’t juggle caring for Len and Peter and dealing with her own mother’s recent death. So Peter gets dumped on Diane, who doesn’t accept the situation gracefully. She’s accustomed to her routine of making hauls, having hotel quickies and coming home to her best friend Runner (Nathan Fillion), who loves her but won’t leave his wife. Although it’s not a terribly enriching existence, it’s what Diane knows and she understands that a kid will change everything. That’s why she ditched Len and Peter 11 years ago. She sees herself as an on-the-move person, but it’s more like she’s always on the run. For all her bravado, Diane is, as Peter angrily points out, a very scared person. Like most only children (this reviewer included), Peter’s gotten very good at reading between the lines of adult behavior. He’s a sidelines-sitter, an observer, a sharp judge of character. Unlike most child actors, Bennett has no trouble finding the woundedness and the smarts in this character.
With its ending and reliance on a script that feels like a not-so-careful rewrite (albeit an observant, more emotionally rich rewrite) of Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 movie “Over the Top,” Mottern’s film does lose some valuable points for predictability. In all fairness, unless Peter ran away or Diane ditched him or they both attempted to murder each other, “Trucker” is a movie that has to end a certain way. Sure, Mottern takes a familiar road; where he surprises us is the way he gets to his destination. He could have made “Trucker” into an orgy of familial reconnection, could have treated us to insufferable montages of bonding. Mottern presents his viewers with emotionally honest portrait of two people struggling to adapt to an unwanted new life. “Trucker” is all the better for it.
Casting elevates “Trucker” to an even higher level. Jimmy Bennett has a knack for playing it straight, bypassing histrionics for simplicity. That’s a choice not many actors his age — he’s barely a teen-ager — would think to make, and it shows he’s got instincts that might take him far. Monaghan provides us with another surprise. Normally stuck into parts that require a pretty face/body, in “Trucker” she has room to let her natural talents emerge. Diane is a difficult woman, yet Monaghan doesn’t back away from her hardness; she embraces it, gives it nuance. This may be the birth of Monaghan the real actress … and if this is her warming up, I for one can’t wait to see what she can do.