Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Spitfire Grill

A couple of nights ago, I screened The Spitfire Grill, a film from 1996, for my media class. Why would I pick a 14-year old, relatively unknown movie when there are plenty of new movies available? Because I’m looking for something special, something unique, and something often not found. I found a gem with The Spitfire Grill. Yes, it’s the kind of movie that Christians and media missionaries should be making, a redemptive story with heart and an emotional impact.

It fits my definition of a Christian film without being a “Christian” film, and it does so by speaking about Jesus the least but having Him most in mind. There are so few movies that accomplish this. It’s a true balancing act. There are a couple of other examples that come to mind, such as To End All Wars and Bella.

What do all of these films have in common? They all deal with pain and the human condition, which can be ugly at times. But somehow, they are also a celebration of life. They don’t pull their punches. They all have an emotional impact. They offer believable dialogue with believable characters. They are not afraid to use symbolism or metaphors. They understand that you have the intelligence to figure it out on your own. They don’t feel contrived or manipulated. That means the screenwriter isn’t throwing a bunch of plot points together to fulfill his or her agenda. All of these films offer no easy answers or any fairytale ending. But, above, all, they are honest and truthful.

The Spitfire Grill exceeds at all of these points. It is redemptive filmmaking at its best. The story is about a young girl recently released from prison. Percy Talbott, played by Alison Elliott, is looking for a fresh start. She arrives in a small town in Maine with hopes of starting a new life. She finds work at the Spitfire Grill owned by Hannah, played my veteran actress Helen Bursteyn.

As the story unfolds, we soon discover Percy’s tragic past. We also realize that Gilead, her new home, is a town with no future and no hope. Do we get second chances? And can we forgive ourselves for our past mistakes? These are the questions that the characters in Spitfire Grill must wrestle with.

Spitfire Grill debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996. It won the prestigious Audience Award for best narrative film. The film was acquired by Castle Rock Entertainment for $10 million, which at the time was the highest amount paid for any independent feature film.

I find it amazing that Spitfire Grill was able to have so much success at Sundance. To say the least, the audience that attends the festival is somewhat diverse. Obviously, they did not see this as a Christian film. It was only later that critics pointed out that the funding for the film came from a Christian-based ministry. That criticism killed what could have been a much larger audience for the film.

Sacred Heart League, a Roman Catholic, non-profit communications organization based in Mississippi, put up the funding of $6 million to make Spitfire Grill. They looked at over 200 perspective screenplays looking for work that embraced Judeo-Christian values and good storytelling. They found what they were looking for in Spitfire Grill.
It took real guts to do what they did, putting $6 million in play with no hope of any return. They had no distribution deal until they got to Sundance. But, more importantly, they weren’t looking just to make a “Christian” film. They had the courage to take chances and allow the material to breathe.

I hope you take the time to discover Spitfire Grill. It’s a journey worth taking. It’s available currently on DVD. Because of its age, it’s unlikely you will be able to rent it. But I have found some online sources where it is available for as little as $6. Do yourself a favor and buy it.

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