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Review: “Trucker” (2009)

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.

Grade: B+

18 Responses

  1. Good review M. You can sort of see flashes of acting chops here and there in Monaghan’s more mainstream movie, more notably Gone Baby Gone so I’m glad she went back to the indie scene to show everyone what she can do.

  2. I was disappointed when she followed up Gone Baby Gone with Made of Honor.

    • “Made of Honor” was an abomination! I hope “Trucker” will convince her not to take parts like that. I know they pay better, but selling out ain’t worth it — just look at John Cusack in “Hot-Tub Time Machine” (review forthcoming).

  3. Come on now…is anything more emotional than Over The Top?

    I wanted to see this one in the theaters last year but, like so many others, it got pushed aside for something else. I’m glad you checked it out because I completely forgot about it! Next stop, Netflix.

    • Still can’t believe Monaghan was overlooked for most award nominations, particularly Oscar. Guess they’ll never forgive her for playing Tom Cruise’s squeeze in “Mission Impossible: III.”

  4. Nathan Fillion?

    Sign me up.

  5. Seriously… I got a serious man-crush on Fillion. I’m surprised by the B+… I did not hear good things. I keep almost grabbing this at the video store and then passing on it every time.

    • Ain’t no shame in that, Kai … the man is H-O-T, AND he knows his way around a one-liner. I have “Firefly” marathons from time to time and just swoon.

      • I even dug him on Buffy as the villain. He’s just brilliant.

        Does anyone watch Castle???? I haven’t but I’m hearing fancy things.

  6. We still don’t have a cinema release date for this over here but it is coming out on DVD later in the year, it may just bypass cinemas. Michaelle Monaghan is great, she just needs more good roles like Gone Baby Gone, one of the most under appreciated movies for years.

    • Still don’t understand how a movie as good as “Gone Baby Gone” flew under the radar, especially with a cast full of big names like Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris.

      • I thought I had commented when you reviewed it a couple of weeks back but looking back I didn’t. I don’t know about the domestic release but over here it was very low profile after being delayed six months because a of a real life child abduction. If it had been made by an established director and not an actor muscling in it would have had a best director Oscar nomination possibly even best picture. It was a better film and a better made film than some of the nominations in quite a strong year.

  7. I haven’t seen Castle. I saw a clip from the opening of their Halloween episode where he dresses up as Mal from Serenity or as a “space cowboy” as he calls it on the show. They totally laugh about it in a tongue and cheek way… hilarious! Check it out here:

    • “Didn’t you wear that like five years ago” classic. I think I’m going to go home and watch Serenity or a couple of episodes of firefly, I’m not ready to move on either!

      • I’ve caught a few episodes of “Castle” and of course I like them because Nathan Fillion has a way with line delivery that just kills me. He’s good in anything, from “Serenity” to “Waitress” (although he’ll have to channel Mal Reynolds if he wants to be the usual cocksure leading man in a romantic comedy).

  8. For me, Monaghan was the best actress winner of 2009. I thought she was superb in this film. I guess the story was too lightweight, perhaps, and formulaic.

    • Yeah, the story bothered me because it felt like a rehash of “Over the Top,” only with the mom and dad parts switched. But Monaghan was so surprisingly good in it that I almost didn’t care.

  9. […] fun, occasionally even affecting, when it serves a purpose.  In James Mottern’s “Trucker,” for example, Michelle Monaghan’s rough-at-the-edges charm made for an unpredictable […]

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