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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+

Review: “Come Early Morning” (2006)

Come_Early_MorningThere are movies where everything happens, movies where nothing really happens and movies where everything happens because nothing really happens. Joey Lauren Adams’ quietly observant “Come Early Morning” belongs to this third group, a cinematic subset that includes such underappreciated gems as “The Station Agent” or “Trees Lounge.” But the lack of action in “Come Early Morning” isn’t laziness. No, it’s more of a call to action. Adams asks us to pay closer attention, to look harder and longer and unearth the meaning in the thousands of little moments. The emotional payoff is small and hard-won but satisfying nonetheless.

Of course, Ashley Judd’s richly textured turn as Lucy Fowler, a 30-something Little Rock contractor who spends most mornings recovering from the night before, feels like reward enough. Judd is a curiosity, an actress with an innate shyness, a bruised emotional toughness, that no agent knows how to handle. Adams does, though, and it’s a relief to see a director who trusts Judd to know herself and find her own way. She does just that with Lucy, showing us a brutal cynic who uses alcohol and semi-anonymous sex to blunt her loneliness and pass the time. Lucy’s hardness frightens most people, including her more hopeful roommate (Laura Prepon) and her mute, closed-off father Lowell (Scott Wilson, never better). But it doesn’t scare the new-in-town Cal (Jeffrey Donovan, an actor with rather impressive range) as much as intrigue him, so he forges a tentative bond with Lucy, who put her heart on lockdown years before.

And thus ends the action at the center of “Come Early Morning.” But that’s hardly where the movie ends. Remember those “little moments”? They’re scattered about with some care, and every one of them delivers emotional punch. Take the moment when Lucy, stone sober, squirms in discomfort while Cal kisses her. He asks her: “When’s the last time you kissed somebody sober?” She can’t remember, but the unease on her face in this scene gives us the answer. Lucy has no concept of sex or affection without alcohol, so sober vulnerability is alien to her. So, too, is the idea of human connection in general. There’s a heart-breaking scene where Lucy invites herself along to her father’s “holy roller” church. Wilson is amazing in this scene, playing tight-lipped but somehow radiating surprise and the tiniest bit of pleasure. Lucy’s taking a risk here, a big one, and Judd makes us feel her fear, her anger and her desperation. It seems like a throwaway, but what heft it has.

But Judd does that with most of her scenes in “Come Early Morning,” which offers a beautifully understated look at Southern life that doesn’t degenerate into a mess of lazy stereotypes. (Judd’s accent? It’s real; only a born Southerner could tell the difference.) Her face, eyes and body language make Lucy seem less like a woman, more like a scared child fighting like hell to keep from growing up. In a way, that’s exactly what Lucy is. She’s someone who made up her mind that people, particularly men, were rotten and untrustworthy years ago, and she’s too stubborn to change her mind because that would uproot her world. Only an actress like Judd could communicate how subtly but surely a woman like this could begin to embrace change. And maybe only a director as patient as Joey Lauren Adams could draw out that kind of performance. It’s the kind of rare, intuitive teamwork that signals the birth of one career and the rebirth of another.

Grade: A-

Kevin Smith, “Chasing Amy” and Jung’s archetypal booboo

I’m something of an oddball among Kevin Smith fans because of my refusal to concede the point that “Chasing Amy” was the best movie he ever made.

Wait. Let me repeat that for dramatic emphasis: “Chasing Amy” was the best movie Kevin Smith ever made. (Had I said that aloud I would have included a long pause in the middle to allow fellow Smith fans to shred me with sarcastic barbs.) Sure, I enjoy his other movies. “Dogma” still strikes me as fairly screwball and revolutionary, and who didn’t find Randal’s 10-second nutshelling of “The Lord of the Rings” movies genius and funny? But “Chasing Amy” … that one holds a special place in my heart, and I think, after 12 years, I finally figured out why:

It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that deals honestly and pointedly with The One Who Got Away (a.k.a. the one archetype Jung glossed over).

No concept is more bittersweet, more painful, more real and universal than the One Who Got Away. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have that One. The One you hurt badly and couldn’t figure out how to apologize to. The One you loved but were too scared to tell, so you settled for “friends.” The One you loved but were too stupid/immature/inexperienced/self-absorbed/damaged/blind to see it.  Everyone has a One. I know I do. And this figure sticks in our subconscious like a splinter. Sometimes it’s calm, sometimes it festers and flares and stings, but it’s always there. We always wonder about it. Until we screw up the courage, we dig out the tweezers and yank. Or until it works itself out on its own.

Kevin Smith gets that, maybe better than any other director I’ve encountered. He knows the weight of chances missed, risks passed up, words stuffed down instead of given voice. What’s more, he knows how to communicate it in two words: “Chasing Amy.” Somehow that’s almost as comforting as it is absurdly perceptive.

Is it possible that I’m overthinking a movie that contains several discussions about whether Archie and Mr. Weatherbee are doing the 44 in the gym showers? Maybe. But I like to think “Chasing Amy” is one of those movies that does a beautiful thing: cuts to the quick of a basic truth of human existence and communicates it in plain language.

Or maybe I’m just getting too damn sentimental in my old age.