There Is A Balm In Gilead
Mar 3, 2002 (Updated Mar 3, 2002)
Review by Sheila Calabrese
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Real tearjerker, Outstanding performances by cast, Interesting allegory
Cons:A little heavy on melodrama, Predictable
The Bottom Line: Moving allegory of a stranger in a close knit town that teaches the citizens a lesson in acceptance and forgiveness
"There is a balm in Gilead to make to wounded whole." These are the words from an old gospel hymn. It's no coincidence that the screenwriter, Lee David Zlotoff chooses the New England town of Gilead, Maine for the setting of Spitfire Grill, a film of suffering and redemption. This 1996 winner of The Sundance Festival's audience award was widely criticized as a sappy melodrama despite the award.
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Percy Talbott (Alison Elliott) is a young woman who has just been released from prison and is being given a chance to start a new life in the small, close knit community of Gilead. The local sheriff has promised the prison's warden that he will look after Percy, and helps her find living quarters and a job working for Hannah (Ellyn Burstyn) the crusty old restaurant owner of the town's only restaurant and center of social life. Percy wastes no time in stealing the thunder of local gossips by admitting to the crime of manslaughter. Fiercely private and independent, Percy does little to ingratiate herself to her neighbors, while trying to deal with her inner demons.
When Hannah breaks her leg snooping in Percy's room for clues about her mysterious past, she breaks her leg, by falling off a stool. Percy is forced to take over full duties at the grill, with the help of Hannah's timid niece Shelby (Macia Gay Hardin). Shelby's husband Nahum (Will Patton), suspicious of Percy and protective of Hannah, develops a plan to frame Percy in a crime, in order to have her expelled from Gilead.
In the meantime, Percy and Shelby develop a growing friendship as they work together to keep the Spitfire going during Hannah's convalescence. They develop a scheme to help Hannah advertise the grill that she has been wanting to sell for years. Working as a travel agent at the prison, Percy was introduced to the idea of an essay contest. She suggests to Shelby that they run an add in newspapers throughout the country, requiring an entrance fee of $100.00, with the best essay receiving the prize of the Spitfire Grill.
The relationship between Percy, Shelby and Hannah begins to deepen as they share the touching and humorous stories, as the essays pour into Gilead. Shelby, whom Nahum has always referred to a dense, begins to develop self-confidence and Percy begins to feel a sense of belonging as their friendship blossoms. Just when it appears that Percy will find refuge and acceptance in Gilead, Nahum lays his vicious trap, and Percy becomes the victim of a plot to send her back to prison, and away from Gilead's cold, rejecting citizens. It is during this deep personal trial, that Percy is able to reveal the secret of her criminal conviction, and with Shelby's help, forgive herself for her mistakes. At the same time, Shelby is able to gain the courage to free herself from Nahum's emotional abuse.
The main weaknesses in this story, are it's predictability, and tendency to lean a little too heavily on melodrama by portraying Percy as an overly sympathetic character. Nahum's character is also slightly exaggerated as the relentless villain. This somewhat mars the otherwise fine performances by Alison Elliott and Will Patton. However, realistic performances by all of the other lead actors, especially Marcia Gay Harden and Ellen Burstyn, help counteract the script's weaknesses.
The real beauty of the film, is in it's moving allegory of Percy's lonely journey from self condemnation to forgiveness along with Shelby's journey to freedom and independence, gained through the power of acceptance and friendship. Despite the flaws of melodrama and emotional manipulation, the film works in the end due to achieving a reasonable balance between sentimentality and universal human foibles.
"There is a balm in Gilead," as the age old hymn promises. The journey of redemption is ultimately judged by the audience, and the critics are silenced.
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