Trucker opens on a bout of anonymous sex between its female semi-driver heroine and a random dude in a motel room. After some impassioned thrusting in which the woman, taking the top, seems to be genuinely enjoying herself, the man turns to her and asks her if she wants his email address. “Goodbye,” she says, rejecting his half-felt gesture of further contact, and heads back out to the gray-bleached highways. We understand from this first scene that Diane Ford (Michelle Monaghan, in a potentially star-making performance) has done this often, that she feels no guilt about her sexuality and that she’s used to being in charge. And what’s refreshing about James Mottern’s film is that, even as Diane later learns to embrace the role of motherhood, her past behaviors are never rejected and she’s never judged. Mottern never betrays his character.
Ten years after splitting up with her husband over questions of her domestic role and leaving her son to be raised by his father, Diane finds herself pressed back in to her past maternal role. With her ex dying of colon cancer, she’s forced to take care of her 11-year-old son first for a month and later indefinitely. Understandably miffed at the mom who wanted nothing to do with her, Peter (Jimmy Bennett) makes things hard for Diane, referring to her as “bitch,” disappearing at a truck stop when he takes her on the road, and insisting on staying at a hotel when it’s clearly out of her budget. But, eventually, the woman develops a fondness for the boy and the two establish a mutually beneficial relationship.
The film’s trajectory is certainly a familiar one and Mottern doesn’t exactly break the mold, but in his tough-minded commitment to both his characters and to their lower-middle-class milieu, the filmmaker recasts his potentially disastrous material into something that feels emotionally honest, if not exactly revelatory. For one thing, the central relationship remains suitably knotty until the final scene (with mom calling the kid a “little shit” and the kid giving back in kind), and even then, in the tentative accord struck between the two, Mottern doesn’t overplay his hand or allow his film to devolve into sentimentality. He also succeeds in conjuring up a dusty, impoverished Southern California untouched by the region’s famed sunshine, which seems the natural habitat of these weathered, though never defeated characters. And above all, there’s Monaghan’s performance, which expertly suggests her character’s hard-fought striving for independence alongside the hints of vulnerability that she doesn’t dare let peek through. Only a last-minute scene of attempted rape seems to strike the wrong note, but until then Trucker stands as an object lesson in the triumph of intelligent commitment over shopworn material.