Written and directed by James Mottern
Starring: Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, Jimmy Bennett, Nathan Fillion and Benjamin Bratt
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
By Scott Marks
Regular filmgoers are likely to remember Michelle Monaghan for her supporting work in “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” “North County” and “Gone Baby Gone.” If the actress stirred up one everlasting impression it’s this: she was the one that caused you to point at the screen and say, “Isn’t that Liv Tyler’s sister?”
“Trucker” is about to shatter all previous perceptions.
Set in remote corners of California and focused on characters that are anything but cosmopolitan, “Trucker” is reminiscent of 70s “slice of life” character studies like “Five Easy Pieces” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Monaghan plays Diane Ford, a hard driving, hard living transporter accountable only to herself and eager to avoid commitment at any and all costs. She is equally at home in a flat bed as she is in cheap motel rooms where she whiles away many an off hour with strays she picks up in the desolate watering holes that dot her route.
Diane fought hard to establish her freedom and at one point confesses shock that she’s actually been anchored to same house for six years. Her foundation will soon be rocked when trouble arrives on her doorstep in the form of her 11-year-old son Peter (Jimmy Bennett), whom she abandoned when he was an infant.
Peter’s favorite appellation for his mom is “bitch” and all things considered, the kid is being kind. As her ex-husband Leonard (Benjamin Bratt) lies dying in a cancer ward, Diane is called into action to watch the boy for three weeks. With no uncertainty in her voice, Diane makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with a kid whose memory has long since been buried in the inner recesses of her soul.
A mother reunited with an estranged stripling and a hubby rapidly succumbing to cancer? Isn’t this material better suited for a Lifetime Channel teledrama? There is no such thing as a bad story, only ineffectual storytellers, and first time writer/director James Mottern does a commendable job of sidestepping clichés in favor strong human emotion and impeccable visual storytelling.
Given the material, many a freshman helmer would have been unable to resist the urge to film everything in close-ups in order to wring each bit of feeling from their actors’ faces. Mottern recognizes the varying degrees of distance between his characters and artfully keeps his lens at a safe distance. His straight-on framing and sparse anamorphic compositions frequently say more about his characters and their interpersonal relationships than any page of dialogue could ever get across.
The performances are uniformly accomplished. Nathan Fillion plays Diane’s next door neighbor, regular drinking partner and the best man in the picture for her. Subsequently he’s one of the few guys she refuses to sleep with. Whether he’s unsuccessfully squelching his feelings for Diane or playing surrogate father to Peter, Fillion brings a tremendous degree of grace and quiet dignity to his character.
The kid is terrific in a very demanding role. Never cute or cloying, Jimmy Bennett finds just the right amounts of anger, confusion and a desperation to belong and be loved that will break your heart. A scene where Leonard says goodbye to his son found me reaching for a bath towel to blot away the tears.
Unless Diane is snorting coke to help the white lines of the road fly faster (a big rig stereotype that’s wisely avoided), Monaghan’s reedy frame doesn’t appear to be the right chassis to play a freighter. Emotionally and professionally (she also served as executive producer) she’s in it for the long haul. This is a star-making turn that sadly won’t be seen by many due to its limited distribution pattern. Let’s hope that Monterey Media sends out enough screeners come awards time so that her performance will not go unnoticed.
“Trucker” opens October 9th exclusively at Reading’s Gaslamp 15.