Diane Ford (Michelle Monaghan) is what society might label “an unconventional woman.” When she was 18 years old, she saw baseball player Leonard Bonner (Benjamin Bratt) emerge from a bus and fell instantly in love. Together they had a son, Peter (Jimmy Bennett), and for awhile Diane played mother. But for some reason, she felt disconnected; it was as if she was watching her own body going through the motions. Realizing that she wasn’t cut out for a life of domesticity, she left her baby and partner behind. Flash forward 11 years, and Diane is a truck driver – she owns her own rig – and is still unattached. Apart from her nights out with Runner (Nathan Fillion), her best and perhaps only friend – (He’s married and they have feelings for each other, but they aren’t sleeping together.) – her only other human connections come from one-night stands with random men. Diane seems content with her life, but that’s all about to come crashing in on her. Leonard is in hospital with colon cancer, and his current partner, Jenny Bell (Joey Lauren Adams) has a funeral to attend. With no one else to watch Peter, they turn to Diane, who reluctantly takes in the angry and confused boy.
By this point, you’re probably thinking that this film, “Trucker,” is headed toward clicheville. Woman who abandons her son eventually discovers that she made a mistake. To make things right, she abandons her job, gets married, dons an apron, and, finally in a tearful embrace, simultaneously, she and her boy declare their undying love for another. Roll credits. The End. If this was a cookie cutter, blockbuster film starring Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts in the lead, you would be right. But it’s not. And for that I thank writer and director James Mottern. “Trucker” isn’t so much about a person who decides that she needs to become a stereotypical “woman,” it’s about a woman who finally accepts responsibility for her decisions, her actions and her life. In many ways, this independent film reminded me Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” the 1974 Oscar winner that starred Ellen Burstyn in the titular role and spawned the very popular, very long running TV series “Alice.”
Diane is not a lovable character. She’s a tough chain-smoking, hard liquor drinking woman who is emotionally detached, almost stoic. We get the sense that someone in her past really did a number on her. Despite her character’s flaws, Monaghan still manages to make us care about her. It helps that the casting director paired her with Fillion, who plays a charming, likable screw-up. He softens her edges. Both actors exhibit amazing chemistry and easily draw us into this domestic tale. It’s unfortunate that mainstream films don’t really know what to do with strong and talented actresses. To get any meaty roles, they have to turn to small budgeted indies that aren’t usually seen by the masses, because they don’t get good distribution deals. It’s a good thing, then, that “Trucker” is getting some Oscar buzz.
Monaghan deserves all of the praise that she’s already received, because she really inhabits this role. She’s tough yet vulnerable; strong yet fragile. Having only seen her as a victim in various action films – “Mission Impossible III” and “Eagle Eye” – and on posters for sappy rom-coms, such as “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Made of Honor,” I didn’t give her much of a thought, except maybe to ponder how much she looks like a cross between Meredith Salinger and Justine Bateman. This performance has prompted a reassessment of her talents. Fillion should get a best supporting nod for his performance. He makes the absolute most of every minute he’s on screen. In fact, I’ve decided that if Fillion is in a film – even if it’s about squids taking over the universe – I’m going to see it. He is Mr. Personality. Although Bratt is on screen only about five minutes, he makes a memorable and heartfelt impression. With very few exceptions, child actors have a way of annoying me, but even though Peter acts out in the brattiest of ways, there’s something about the way that Bennett plays his character that elicits more sympathy than disgust. (If truth be told, he reminds me of my brother at that age.) Bennett is a rising star to be sure. After all, he’s just 14 years old, and has already played a young James T. Kirk in “Star Trek.” In his next two films –“Alabama Moon” and “Bones” – he plays the titular character.
Because the summary for “Trucker” made it sound ready-made for Lifetime television or for an Oprah film of the month club, I almost didn’t watch it. Credit Oscar buzz, Fillion and Netflix’s Instant Watch option for changing my mind. And here’s to hoping this review will change yours. “Trucker” truly deserves a top spot in your “must watch” films queue. I am so enamored with Mottern’s directorial debut that it has found its way onto my Best Films of 2009 list.