We see the boots first, then the leather cigarette case, the silver lighter -- all very worn, very male -- in the seedy motel room where sounds of sex, raw and desperate, fill the air.
But appearances are rarely what they seem in "Trucker." It will be the woman who shrugs off the night; the boots and the rest are hers too. Lean and sinewy, she heads for an 18-wheeler in the parking lot out front, slides behind the wheel and kicks the engine into a dull roar. As the road stretches out in front of her, only then does she breathe easy.
This is just the first of many miles we will travel with Michelle Monaghan's Diane Ford, the sexy tough chick in the fast lane of writer-director James Mottern's haunting tale of motherhood lost and found.
There are so many wonderfully unconventional things to like about this tiny independent film, Monaghan's earthy and uncompromising performance chief among them, its depth surprising you at every turn. That the trucker of the title, a take-no-prisoner's woman barely in her 30s with a taste for whiskey, late nights and rough sex, is a mother is one of the first.
It is almost as much of a surprise to Diane. Her boy, who she hasn't seen in years, is unexpectedly dropped off one night. His dad, her ex (Benjamin Bratt), is fighting cancer and the stepmom (Joey Lauren Adams) has too much to handle. It will only be temporary, but Diane knows even temporary will upend her life in ways she's not interested in exploring.
Peter (Jimmy Bennett) is 11, and he is just as reluctant about the arrangement. The back story comes out in the half-sentences of resentment he hurls in her direction. Diane's the stranger who left him when he was a baby. In a sense, he's a chip off the block, erecting a wall of anger just like his mother to keep the world from getting too close.
Mottern takes his time with the relationship, letting Diane feel her way toward Peter, who is locked in a deep sulk anyway. Circumstances conspire to force her to take him on the road for one haul with truck stops turning out to be not exactly a safe hangout for a kid.
Diane comes to mothering slowly, reluctantly and in her own way. When some punks at a convenience store across from their motel hassle Peter one night, she storms out in her wife-beater tee, underwear and socks to register a complaint with a few well-placed punches. Mother love, when it comes, turns out to be fierce. As is Monaghan, who creates a kind of visceral force field that flashes in her eyes and tightens the muscles across her back.
There are men everywhere in this world, but they are not the kind a woman can lean on even if that was her way. Runner (Nathan Fillion) is the best friend she's in love with but won't sleep with because he's married. He follows her around like a puppy, fixing things around her house in hopes it will fix their relationship. Bratt's Len, a terminal case, exists around the edges, a good thing since even in a hospital gown he looks as if he's just back from a workout at the gym -- it's the one performance that really doesn't work and an unfortunate distraction.
And then there is 12-year-old Bennett. You may remember him as a young James Kirk in the most recent "Star Trek" or as the best thing about Robert Rodriguez's dreadful "Shorts." Bennett just gets stronger with each role he takes on. His disaffected Peter, eyes ducking under a shag of hair, shoulders slumped as if that might help him disappear, is more than willing to tangle with his mother's moods.
Though this is Mottern's first feature film, he has an unhurried style that gives the movie and its characters time to breathe in all the right places. He has said he was inspired by movies like "Five Easy Pieces," low-riding character studies, and you see that influence most when Diane's on the road. He captures the sense of freedom and beauty of crossing the country in the cocoon of a cab, 18 wheels spinning you forward. There is an attention to detail you see in the dusty, down-market San Diego neighborhood where Diane lives and the quiet order of her house, a counterpoint to the chaos of her life.
Mottern has given us a rare thing, a blue-collar woman with the grit and righteous strength of a Clint Eastwood character. Monaghan has given her heart.
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality, language, brief drug use involving minors, and a sexual assault
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills