By Erik Davis, reprinted from the Tribeca Film Festival 4/26/08
I was completely honest with actress Michelle Monaghan yesterday when I told her, right at the beginning of a one-on-one interview, that I'd been waiting a long time to watch her come alive in a role. In her relatively short career, Monaghan has already racked up quite the resume -- appearing in films like Mission Impossible III, Gone Baby Gone, The Bourne Supremacy, The Heartbreak Kid and Made of Honor. She's got a great, girl-next-door quality about her, but is she memorable? The good news here is that Monaghan finally delivered the sort of performance I've known was trapped somewhere inside her, hidden behind a variety of big, flashy Hollywood films. Make no mistake, this is her film. She owns it. But is that enough to convince you to see it?
In Trucker, she plays Diane, a female truck driver with one helluva edge -- not to mention a knack for drinking lots of hard liquor and taking part in more than a few unhealthy one-night-stands. She's a selfish woman with not many friends; she knows just what she needs to keep on truckin', and she knows just how to get it. Thing is, you'll never see her give anything back. These personality traits become a problem when Diane's 11-year-old estranged son (Jimmy Bennett) shows up on her doorstep one day -- brought by his soon-to-be stepmother (Joey Lauren Adams) when colon cancer forces the kid's dad (Benjamin Bratt) into the hospital. These two, mother and son, don't care for one another, nor are they interested in getting better acquainted. He needs a place to crash for three weeks, and she needs to find a way to let that happen.
What follows is somewhat of a familiar story; the young child is dropped off on the doorstep of the selfish, non-existent parent and, together, both learn to appreciate -- and possibly love -- the other. On paper, the whole thing might make you roll your eyes -- but the performances (specifically Monaghan and Bennett) are so good that you almost forget where, how and when you've seen this story before. It's also welcoming to find this sort of premise told from the perspective of mother and son, instead of the recycled father-meets-estranged-daughter storyline. There's a different connection between mother and child right off the bat, and tension is at an even higher level when both mother and son have the vocabulary of a, well, truck driver. (When Diane first asks her son why he isn't speaking to her, he shouts back: "I don't like to talk to bitches.")
Written and directed by first-timer James Mottern, Trucker has a warm, comfortable '70s vibe to it. Mottern populates his film with soft, country acoustics set against a backdrop that includes hot, California freeways and just-about-middle-class neighborhoods. Monaghan takes it one step further by injecting a bit of Sally Field and Ellen Burstyn into her performance, which luckily pays off for her and definitely shows this girl is destined for bigger things and better roles. Fan favorite Nathan Fillion also turns in a fairly by-the-books performance as Runner, Diane's one, trustworthy male friend -- and the only one who hasn't tried to sleep with her ... yet. Their relationship lacks an extra touch of development, but it's also not as important to the story; Runner's used more as an everyman to show Diane's growth in the self-respect department.
The film's best moments come wrapped in the communication struggle between Diane and her son. Mottern makes a point to not let either character call the other by their name (in order to clearly illustrate the distance between them), and so a good majority of their mother-son conversations feature the words 'bitch' and 'dude.' The loose script also allows for a nice, natural story to unfold minus all that cookie-cutter plot crap Hollywood shoves down our throats. Trucker is like Sherrybaby-lite; this is quite obviously Monaghan's "Oscar" role, though I'm not sure there's enough hurt and dirt in the part to get her a nod. That said, it's still a performance you don't want to miss. Michelle Monaghan is memorable ... and I'm damn happy to write that.