Writer-director James Mottern’s Trucker is very much a mixed bag. Produced for around $1.5 million, the independent drama debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival back in April 2008 and stars Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Joey Lauren Adams, and Jimmy Bennett. It centers on Diane Ford (Monaghan), a big-rig driver whose selfish way of life is thrown out-of-whack when, late one evening, she returns home from a bender with her pal Runner (Fillion) to find her estranged son, Peter (Bennett), on her doorstep; as it turns out, the boy’s father (Bratt) is in the hospital battling cancer and the decidedly un-motherly trucker is the only one available to care for her son while his dad recuperates. As the prickly would-be mom and her smart-mouthed 11-year-old lock horns, the stage is set for a journey of self-discovery that will force Ford to face up to the mistakes of her past and make some difficult decisions about her future. More after the jump:
Prior to being released on DVD on January 5 of this year, Trucker toured the festivals, picking up a few awards at such venues as the Trimedia Film Festival and, perhaps most notably, earning a spot on Roger Ebert’s list of the top ten films of 2009. What piqued my interest, however, were the names that headline the cast: Michelle Monaghan and Nathan Fillion – two of my absolute favorite actors. And while this film certainly has its issues, I’m pleased to report that the performances turned in by the two leads are not among them.
Monaghan completely inhabits the rambunctious yet world-weary Diane Ford, delivering an engrossing and uncompromising performance that anchors the film. She expertly communicates her character’s progression, subtly revealing the cracks that appear in Ford’s brusque exterior as the arrival of her son triggers a state of emotional volatility. Even when they’re not butting heads, Ford is never entirely at ease with young Peter; there’s always a sort of nervous energy just below the surface, stemming from the character’s fear of what letting the boy into her life, a life characterized by binge-drinking and one-night stands, could mean for both of them. It’s an intense but grounded performance that’s impressive, to say the least. This is really the first time we’ve seen Monaghan get a chance to play so complex and challenging a character and she gives us every reason to look forward to the next time.
Matching her beat-for-beat is Nathan Fillion as Runner, a married Iraq War vet and Ford’s best friend. Presumably by virtue of his experiences in Iraq, Runner is essentially a broken man who has no want or need of anything in life except a few beers throughout the day and to be around Ford as much of the time as possible. Fillion brings his standard playful charisma to the part, but here that charisma is subtly undercut by a sense of emptiness and a quiet desperation. He manages to be charming and pitiable at the same time, a duality that is potently brought to bear in a brilliant, moving exchange with Monaghan’s character near the end of the film; for my money, it’s the movie’s finest scene. Suffice it to say, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen from the former Firefly star, and, as with Monaghan, I hope he gets the opportunity to go this deep into the well more often.
For their parts, Bennett, Bratt, and Adams do solid work, as well. Where the film fails is in Mottern’s uneven script, which too often takes Trucker and its talented cast into banal generic territory. To his credit, the director does, at certain times, succeed at scripting and staging some very genuine, very compelling drama. In fact, I think he deserves a fair share of the credit for nimbly crafting the clearly more-than-friends friendship between Ford and Runner, which indeed proves to be the most satisfying relationship in the film. Obviously, much of the credit should go to the two actors. However, Mottern does his part by making their arc unpredictable. It’s an unconventional pairing characterized by unconventional interaction; we genuinely don’t know where the two of them will end up, making the progression of their relationship quite engaging.
Unfortunately, where the director fails to create so compelling a dynamic is in the relationship that needed it the most: the one that exists between mother and son. Here, Mottern charts a predictable, movie-of-the-weekish course fraught with clichéd, often cringe-worthy, dialogue and your standard contrived attempts at touching moments (“You’re scared,” shouts young Peter at his mother. “You’re the most scared person I know.”). This makes it really tough to invest in the film’s central storyline, despite the excellent performances. We move from a supposed-to-be cute scene in which Ford convinces her son to come on the road with her to a supposed-to-be heart-warming scene in which Ford defends young Peter from a pair of bullies to a supposed-to-be heart-breaking scene in which she says within earshot of the boy that she’ll “be rid of him” before too long; but we never really connect to any of these moments or to the mother-son saga as a whole. The material is simply too trite.
The result is that the core of the movie is flawed. At times, the acting manages to rise above this fact, but more often than not, for me at least, the stale scripting proved to be a considerable distraction. The central relationship, which one has to buy into for a film like this to truly succeed, rings false, which inevitably undermines the earnest efforts of the talented ensemble.
For this reason, I can’t help but look at this film as a missed opportunity. Mottern’s script, instead of serving as a platform for his actors, ultimately proves to be a weight they are forced to bear, preventing Monaghan in particular from really taking her turn as Ford to the heights that I believe she could have. Even so, I think Trucker is worth a rent, provided you can suffer through its failings, for the flashes of brilliance from Fillion and Monaghan. If nothing else, this will give you a reason to look forward to future opportunities for the talented lead actress (and, believe me, they’re coming) in which she’ll hopefully be afforded the circumstances that will allow her to deliver a true breakout performance.
-“The Actress Prepares for Her Role” slideshow