No doubt, some critics will pigeonhole James Mottern's Trucker, opening Friday (10.9.09) in limited release, as an overly familiar dramatic take on the footloose adult suddenly forced into unexpected parenthood. But a couple of things about this haunting little film argue against such an easy dismissal.
For one thing, Trucker has the ring of emotional truth. For another, it approaches this formula with a difference: The person pressured into acting the parent is a woman, not a man. And, finally, the film is built around a strikingly tough-minded but beautifully drawn performance by Michelle Monaghan.
Monaghan, stuck until now mostly playing girlfriends or damsels in distress, plays Diane, an independent over-the-road trucker who owns her own rig and enjoys the attachment-free lifestyle of here today, there tomorrow. She has a house in Barstow, Ca., and a drinking buddy there, the affable (and married) Runner (Nathan Fillion). She's her own boss, sleeps with whoever she wants when she wants and likes it that way.
But she comes off one road trip to find the wife (Joey Lauren Adams) of her ex-husband, Len (Benjamin Bratt), camped on her front step with an 11-year-old in tow. The ex is in the hospital with colon cancer; the ex's wife has to leave town for her own mother's funeral. Which leaves Diane to care for the boy -- who turns out to be Diane's son, who she gave up to the ex-husband as a baby and hasn't seen since.
It's an uncomfortable fit, to say the least. Diane lacks the whole motherhood-nurture instinct. She likes her job, the competence she has at it and the freedom it gives her. The boy, Peter (Jimmy Bennett) -- with his need for food, laundry, school, parenting -- represents nothing so much as a set of obligations that Diane views as a giant anchor tied to her neck.
After one unsatisfactory run to Oklahoma City with Peter in tow, Diane settles into shorter overnight runs, so she can handle both the childcare and her job. But she's not happy about it and her relationship with Peter is, at best, fractious. Gradually, however, she begins to acquiesce to the circumstances and the rhythms of parenthood. As she grudgingly gets to know her son, change begins, if incrementally.
Elfin but wiry, Monaghan easily embodies the flinty, no-nonsense Diane, a woman who can take care of herself in all senses. Monaghan plays her as neither a trouble-maker nor a trouble-seeker -- just a bristly, self-sufficient person whose connections to others tend to be obligation-free.
It's a wonderfully rounded performance, reminiscent in its depth and heart of the one Melissa Leo gave in Frozen River. There's a toughness to the character; as Monaghan plays her, she's a woman, not a girl -- but one whose feelings are not nearly as encapsulated as she'd like to tell herself.
Jimmy Bennett has a prickly defensiveness as the unhappy boy forced to live with a mother he doesn't know -- other than knowing that she didn't want him. Fillion puts easy-going comic spin on his lines, as the shaggy friend who wishes Diane would reciprocate his crush. Brett is touching in his brief scenes as the ex, who won't get the chance to outlive his regrets.
Trucker is a revelation in terms of the performance Michelle Monaghan gives. Give it a chance and you won't be sorry.
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