Riding in Cars With Boys

Running time 90 minutes
Written and Directed by James Mottern
Starring Michelle Monaghan, Benjamin Bratt, Jimmy Bennett, Joey Lauren Adams

In an honestly observed and understated little film called Trucker, an excellent cast vibrates with authenticity to tell an impassioned story about the uncharted lives of discarded people denied the crumbs of hope the rest of us live on. Michelle Monaghan, who has made an impact as tough broads in gritty films like North Country and Gone Baby Gone, plays Diane Ford, a rough and calloused lady truck driver whose life consists of solitary meals in greasy truck-line cafes, one-night stands on the road, no commitments, no feelings beyond instant orgasm and payment by the mile. This carefully planned life of independence is compromised when her ex-husband, Len (Benjamin Bratt), ends up in the hospital with colon cancer, and she ends up with the 11-year-old son she deserted when he was an infant. With Len’s girlfriend unable to care for the kid, Diane has no choice but to drag him along on her cross-country hauls, and in the process a curious negotiation begins between an incompetent parent saddled with a child she doesn’t want and a miserable, resentful son who treats her with no more trust than he would a truant officer. As they are forced against their will into an uneasy union, the instinct for love and belonging begins to feel like the road to redemption.

Thanks to sensitive direction and a natural, exemplary script, both of which by the talented and never syrupy James Mottern, Trucker holds its emotions firmly in check throughout. The feelings that grow from this reluctant mother-son relationship do not exactly add up to love, but at least two people who set out hating each other learn the meaning of the word “caring.” Nothing seems phony, sentimental or forced. The kid, played without a trace of adolescent whining by Jimmy Bennett, masks his real fear and self-doubt in a tough-guy veneer that becomes an endearing metaphor for self-defense. Len’s new live-in partner (Joey Lauren Adams) is a good person, but she has her own problems to deal with apart from raising another man’s child. Even the married stud who becomes Diane’s drinking buddy (Nathan Fillion, the handsome doctor in Waitress and the newest neighborhood rake on TV’s Desperate Housewives) has two sides to his personality that lift him above the usual testosterone-escape clichés. And Ms. Monaghan’s febrile intensity shifts touchingly to reveal unexpected flashes of warmth beneath the hard-boiled facade. She reminds one of Famke Janssen in the 2007 film Turn the River, as a poker-playing pool hustler trying to scrape together the money to reunite with another 11-year-old abandoned at birth. In a gender-casting shift, Ms. Monaghan is terrific in a traditionally male role. Even at her most reluctantly maternal, she’s got a masculine directness, as when she tries to teach the kid how to hit a fly ball with a baseball bat that is half his size (a talent that comes in handy when he comes home to find his mother the victim of a robbery and attempted rape). Writer-director Mottern is so balanced in his reserve that even the final scene avoids the usual tear-stained everything-works-out-for-the-best movie embrace. Responsibility is inevitable. Priorities are reevaluated. But don’t expect easy resolutions. No happy rainbow awaits at the finish line. This is a careful film with deep feelings in measured doses that takes its time developing character. Mother and child are still two lost souls on the highway of life, but at least the truck stops won’t be so lonely.