Posted by Susan Doll on October 19, 2009
Years ago, I worked a few summers at a truck stop to earn money to return to college in the fall. I was a cashier in the small store that sold souvenirs to tourists and supplies to the truckers, which afforded me an opportunity to chat with customers and other employees. I retain fond memories of my experiences, primarily because of the diversity of people that I met. The worst of the lot were middle-class tourists and their obnoxious offspring, leaving me with a life-long dislike of conventional adult lifestyles; the best were the truckers, most of whom earned their collective nickname, “the knights of the road.” A handful of those “knights” were women truckers. Though less open and friendly than their male counterparts, the ladies of the road were admirable in their independence, confidence, and competence in a male-dominated occupation. Some of them were driving partners with their husbands, taking over the wheel while their men rested or slept.
Recently, I watched the independent drama Trucker, starring Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, and Benjamin Bratt, and I was reminded of those summers at the truck stop when I had more respect for the ladies of the road than the women who let their devil spawn run wild through my store. Trucker, which is the story of a woman truck driver forced to reconnect with a son she gave up years earlier, features great performances, a strong female character, a slice of working-class life that is not condescending, and good filmmaking by a relatively new director. But, like the plight of most indie films with serious content, Trucker will likely not play on a big screen near you anytime soon, and it will be lost in obscurity. I saw the film at Facets Multi-Media, where our programmer Charles Coleman, despite pinched budgets and dwindling staff, still manages to book some great films. It’s the only venue in town that showed the film, which opened in very limited release on October 9. Sadly, even though Roger Ebert gave it a four-star review, few Chicagoans showed up to see the film. The next time anybody in town complains about the state of commercial Hollywood films, and how there are no movies made for adults anymore, I am going smash a poster of Trucker over their heads.
Reading about the difficulties in getting this film produced and distributed makes for a depressing account of the uncertainties of independent filmmaking and an eye-opening explanation for the lack of decent films in theaters. Star Michelle Monaghan was offered the role in 2006, but it took a year for first-time director James Mottern to secure $1.5 million in financing to make the film. Trucker was shot in the summer of 2007 in just 19 days, a fast shoot even for an indie. After the film was completed, it took another year and a half to find a distributor. Mottern did not get the film finished in time to enter the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, though it was the type of film that was expected to be in the festival. Sundance has become the key marketplace for American indie films, and if a film doesn’t make it into the festival, then the director misses out on the major distributors, plus a stigma is attached to the film. In other words, the buzz becomes, “If the film didn’t make it into Sundance, then what is wrong with it.” Trucker did get accepted into the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, which was the fest begun by Robert DeNiro in the wake of 9/11. Finally at the end of 2008, a small distributor of low-profile indie films, Monterey Media, picked it up just as Mottern was about to give up. Trucker has toured the film-festival circuit this year, with Monterey trying to stir up strong word of mouth via reviews and interviews. It was finally released in very limited venues in major markets a couple of weeks ago. However, without print and television advertizing or an aggressive marketing campaign, which a small company like Monterey can ill afford, few exhibitors will bother to book it.
The best chance for Trucker to gain an audience will be during awards season. Receiving acknowledgements from the various critics’ circles, or better yet, nominations for an Independent Spirit Award or an Academy Award, will garner the attention of the press and public. Only after the public becomes informed and interested will exhibitors in smaller markets be tempted to book the film. Monterey Media is hoping that Trucker will become this year’s Frozen River (2008) or Away from Her (2006), and they were quick to include a reference to Ebert’s four-star review on the film’s website. Ebert called Monaghan’s performance worthy of an Oscar nomination for best actress, and considering how few intelligent roles there are for actresses in studio films, she has a good chance.
And, Monaghan is terrific in a unique role with true depth of character. There are few portrayals of working class life that are not demeaning, and Mottern offers a portrait of a flawed character without judging or criticizing her. Monaghan stars as Diane Ford, a long-haul trucker who drives an 18-wheeler across the country. She likes the independence of her occupation and hasn’t the time or inclination for relationships. For fun and relaxation between hauls, she drinks and dances at the local VFW with Runner, her male friend who is a day laborer and conveniently married to someone else. However, her life is disrupted when her ex-husband Leonard becomes terminally ill with colon cancer, and she has to take in their son. Diane had left both of them behind a decade earlier because she felt trapped by marriage and motherhood. Throughout the film, mother and son struggle to come together in a story that is neither soft nor sentimental. Jimmy Bennett, who starred as the young James Kirk in this year’s Star Trek film, manages to play the son without being cloying or cute. Two actors who have enjoyed most of their success on television, Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Desperate Housewives, and Castle) and Benjamin Bratt (Law and Order, E-Ring, and The Cleaner), costar as Runner and Leonard, respectively. And, Joey Lauren Adams rounds out the adult actors playing Leonard’s girlfriend, Jenny Bell.
Watching seasoned actors get an opportunity to use their skills is one of the pleasures of this film. Mottern makes use of simple shot/reverse shot set-ups in the exchanges between Diane and her son, or between Diane and Runner, and often the camera lingers on their faces after the lines are spoken. This allows the actor the space to reveal the inner natures of the characters, because they are playing people who are inarticulate, confused, or unable to express in words what they truly feel. Small wonder that that Monaghan, Fillion, Bratt, and Adams enjoyed working in this film, which gave them an opportunity to act, instead of merely spewing forth large amounts of explanatory dialogue, throwing off catchy one-liners, or being the object of the male character’s gaze.
But, this is Michelle Monaghan’s film, and her character Diane dominates the story. Interestingly, Monaghan had just wrapped the big studio comedy Made of Honor playing opposite Patrick Dempsey when she got behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler to shoot her first scenes for Trucker. The two roles are the stellar opposite in budget, in style, and in its depiction of women. In Made of Honor, Monaghan plays the sweet-faced, well-dressed object of Dempsey’s affection. She’s an archetype of male desire–the beautiful best buddy who is suddenly desirable after it is too late to win her. Her perfection is only noticed by the male lead after she becomes unattainable. In other words, she is “the Girl” as depicted in current Hollywood movies–an idealized character who is ancillary to the male lead. At best, she is the goal to be obtained; at worst, a victim to be protected. By contrast, Diane is neither perfect nor a victim. Though it is difficult to mask Monaghan’s beauty, she is not glamorous, well-dressed, or well-coifed. Hair has always been a major signifier of beauty and glamour in Hollywood movies, going all the way back to the silent era. Depicting Diane’s hair as uncombed and unstyled tells us instantly that she does not dress to be viewed by men. Indeed for much of the movie, she dresses like a man in faded t-shirts, dusty jeans, and cowboy boots.
In some scenes, Mottern undermines the way gender roles are typically depicted in commercial Hollywood films. Trucker opens with Diane having sex with someone she picked up to merely service her needs. She’s on top and in control, and afterward, her nice-looking “date” wants to exchange e-mails or phone numbers, but she brushes him off, anxious to get back on the road. I have seen this type of scene enacted before, or used as the fodder for jokes in adolescent comedies– but it is typically the male who can’t wait to beat a hasty retreat after nailing the girl. In another scene, Diane flies out of a motel room after two teenage boys cause an injury to her son in the parking lot of convenience store. She is clad only in her underwear and t-shirt. Generally, in scenes in which the female lead is dressed in her underwear, she is depicted to her best advantage in glamorous lighting effects, full makeup, and provocative poses, but in this scene, Diane marches in a masculine stride across a freeway and into the parking lot of the store, where she efficiently knocks the vinegar out of the two teens. The teens are afraid of her, not ogling her state of semi-dress. Afterward, she buys a toothbrush from the convenience store, completely unself-conscious about her lack of pants.
Gender roles are also reversed with the two male characters, Runner and Leonard, who are both more nurturing than the two women, Diane and Jenny Bell. Whether due to personality or circumstances, neither woman wants to be the boy’s parent, but that does not make them unlikable or wrong. According to Monaghan, there was a line that didn’t make it into the final version of the screenplay in which Diane explains, “There are about a billion women on the planet. I guess one or two of them are not cut out for motherhood.” But, that’s not a truism you will find in Hollywood films.
As she comes to the realization that she must take care of her child, Diane adjusts to her situation but does not change her occupation. She takes more short-haul loads instead of long-hauls so she can be home at the end of the day. As a bond forms between mother and child, Diane softens but does not weaken. Mottern spares us the clichéd or sentimental dialogue that one might expect in a film about motherhood; instead he notes Diane’s attitude adjustment via her costuming and makeup. About two-thirds of the way through the film, she sports a necklace around her neck—a feminine touch at odds with the dark, faded t-shirts and boot-cut jeans. In the final scene, she has combed her hair, pulling part of it back in a clip, and she wears a colorful blouse and denim skirt. However, with her cleaned-up appearance comes one of the perils of being a woman in a man’s world—attempted sexual assault. In other words, her world is not better because she learns to accept part of her feminine nature.
In an interview, a less-than-knowing member of the press asked Monaghan if she would have been cast if this had been a studio production. She wisely answered that no studio would have made this film precisely because the character “is her own man” and runs counter to the narrow depictions of women on the screen today. Depicting a woman who is completely uninterested in the rewards and rigors of motherhood defies Hollywood convention ever since the Production Code mandated that all female leads had to be marriage-minded and family-oriented.
I became a fan of Monaghan when I read that she not only learned how to drive an 18-wheeler but also how to drop and hook a load. She actually got her CDL (commercial driver’s license, for those of you who have not worked in a truck stop) so she could understand what Diane found so irresistible about the road. It was an important part of the character’s identity. Diane is frequently shot from the inside of the truck’s cab at peace on the open road—at once untethered to the confines of a conventional lifestyle yet isolated from the warmth of a family. She reminded me of the truckers I knew back in the day, with their outrageous stories about the road, their endless struggle to take the biggest load in the shortest haul for the most money, and the loneliness they carried like a badge of honor.
I dedicate this article to them.
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