September 02, 1996 12:00 PM

Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden, Will Patton

A young woman (Elliott) newly sprung from the state penitentiary after serving five years for manslaughter sets off to make a fresh start in a small Maine town called Gilead. One doesn’t have to have spent many Sundays with a hymnal open to “There Is a Balm in Gilead” to catch the significance of the hamlet’s name. Whether the place will prove balm or bane to Elliott is at the heavy heart of this well-intentioned tear-jerker, a movie financed by Gregory Productions, a company owned by a Roman Catholic order. Which helps explain why The Spitfire Grill is about learning to believe in the basic goodness of people. Be sure to check all cynicism at the ticket booth.

The first feature film by writer-director Lee David Zlotoff, creator of the MacGyver TV series, Spitfire plays a lot like a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. It’s polished and offers many lovely, small moments, but the whole may strike you as cloying, particularly if you are not of a mind to be manipulated—Kleenex alert—by the movie’s excessively symbolic ending.

Elliott, who starred last year in The Buccaneers on PBS-TV, is absolutely terrific—gritty and touchingly believable—as the hurting young woman unable to leave her past behind. Burstyn, playing the gruff owner of the diner where Elliott works, clomps around as if she were Katharine Hepburn doing Mammy Yokum. But we’re certainly not in Dogpatch here. (Spitfire Grill won the Audience Award earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.) (PG-13)

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