At first, I was kind of surprised that Trucker didn't get into more theaters before hitting DVD. Not just because the publicists who have my email address filled it with a lot of invitations to press screenings (in New York, of course) and EPK materials and, temptingly, an interview opportunity with Michelle Monaghan that had my heart skip a beat before I realized that it would likely be by phone or email and, really, Seaver, what do you think is going to happen beyond an interview straight out of "The Chris Farley Show", since you stink at talking to people? But the two top names on it are Michelle Monaghan and Nathan Fillion, and people like them. Maybe once you get past the sci-fi geeks who recognize Fillion from his Joss Whedon and James Gunn stuff, not by name, but once you remind folks of the roles they played ("the girl in the Santa dress in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", "the doctor in Waitress", "Tom Cruise's girlfriend in Mission Impossible 3", "Castle", "the partner in Gone Baby Gone","Mal Reynolds", "the person who didn't make you want to drive a sharp stick into your eye in The Heartbreak Kid"), the reaction is almost always "him and her? Yeah, I really like them!".
But, I guess that's not really name recognition. And as much as I'm usually one to say that the doomsayers are exaggerating when they say how bad distribution and ticket sales are for independent films these days, I have to admit that I've sat in very small crowds for movies that have what I'd consider a pretty decent cast - folks people would recognize. Skin the other night; The Canyon a couple months ago. As much as I like Michelle Monaghan, this is the first time where the movie she's in has really been about her, so I'm not sure how much of a draw she could possibly be.
Of course, if this were released beyond New York/L.A., and it got some critical acclaim and maybe made her a dark horse candidate for a Best Actress Oscar (and, yeah, she is that good here), she might be a draw for her next movie. But getting to that next level isn't easy, and clearly takes nearly as much luck as it does doing good work.
* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2010 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)
Trucker is a working-class drama, and that may be a factor in why it didn't get released on more screens. Dig into it a little, and it's similar to Up in the Air - a story about a contentedly itinerant person changing by forming attachments - but without the jet-set gloss. It's got a nice cast, doing fine work, and hopefully those recognizable names will lead to people giving it a shot on video.
The trucker of the title is Diane Ford (Michelle Monaghan). She's an independent, both in terms of owning her rig and not being tied to any man for longer than a night. Well, there's her neighbor and best friend Runner (Nathan Fillion), but he's married and that's half a step farther than she's willing to go. That's about to be challenged, though, as her ex-husband's girlfriend Jenny (Joey Lauren Adams) has just popped up to drop off Peter (Jimmy Bennett), the 11-year-old son that Diane hasn't seen since he was a baby. His father Len (Benjamin Bratt) is being treated for colon cancer, and Jenny has family obligations of her own, so Diane's stuck with the kid for three weeks.
One thing that's well-done and maybe a bit unusual about Trucker is that, even though it's natural for for the sympathy in a situation like the one with Diane and Peter to be heavily slanted toward the child, Peter initially gets on our nerves. And not in an annoyingly precious child-actor way; Jimmy Bennett turns in a very good performance as a kid that takes some effort to warm up to. He's angry, lashes out, and does stupid things; Bennett captures something akin to a justified brattiness, the sort where you can understand where the kid's coming from but can also recognize that this particular attitude isn't going to make anything better. It's quite the naturalistic performance for one so young.
He gets to have most of his scenes opposite Michelle Monaghan, and that brings out the best in both of them (if not their characters). If this movie had managed a higher profile, there's no doubt that this would be a breakout role for her. Monaghan has made a career out of being likable on-screen, and Diane is the sort of role that gets people to realize that it's not just good looks; she knows how to act well enough to get her hooks into people. Here, writer/director James Mottern gives us plenty of reasons to look down on Diane; Monaghan finds ways to present it that don't so much have us liking her, but figuring that she has certainly been led to this point by decisions that must have made sense at the time. She gets that the things that make Diane able to stand on her own two feet and the things that keep her alone are two sides of the same coin.
Nathan Fillion is another guy who has built up a reputation based on likability, and he puts it to good use here; his Runner is an amiable person for Diane to talk to. He's full of charm, the sort that makes it very easy for the audience to avoid asking the question "but what about his wife?" Joey Lauren Adams is in and out fairly quickly as Jenny, and Benjamin Bratt isn't around for much longer as Len, but it's plenty long enough to get a sense of them. Bratt especially does good work, using just words to sell his relationships with the women in the cast, and giving a sense of just how Len is doing without a whole lot of visible suffering or an emotional death scene.
That's one of the things I like about Mottern's film; it doesn't feel the need to drag every single plot thread out to its eventual conclusion. What he does isn't always subtle - he actually has the kid tell Diane that she's "the most scared person" he knows, briefly hitting the "too-wise child" and "obvious statement of theme" buttons simultaneously. But he recognizes his production's strengths, letting his cast do their thing without spending a whole lot of time jerking them from story point to story point. He shows us the world his characters live in without passing a whole lot of judgment, letting it be complicated but not compromised.
This is the sort of picture that could have netted Michelle Monaghan some awards or nominations, if a few things had broken right business-wise. They didn't, apparently. Hopefully the right people will see it anyway, and recognize that Monaghan has a ceiling well above "cool but secondary girl who looks good in a Santa dress", because she's certainly shown herself capable of bigger things here.
Also at EFC