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Every now and then a small film comes along that features a star-making performance. Carey Mulligan, a major Oscar contender in this week's "An Education" is one example. Another is Michelle Monaghan, but her tiny indie gem "Trucker" is unlikely to garner the same kind of attention, as it's being dropped with little advance marketing support into one theater in New York, and a second run comes up next week in L.A. It would be a shame if this film doesn't generate awards attention as well, because it's the kind of role that made Sally Field a movie star in "Norma Rae" and could do the same for Monaghan.

The film features Monaghan as Diane Ford, a beautiful and successful independent truck driver whose idyllic life on the road includes uncomplicated sex with strangers and all-night drinking binges with her fellow trucker pal Runner (Nathan Fillion). This carefree existence is suddenly threatened when her estranged 11-year-old son, Peter (Jimmy Bennett), comes back into her world due to the critical illness of his father, Len (Benjamin Bratt). This change of events forces a freedom-loving woman who has never had to worry about family responsibility to suddenly come to terms with herself, her long-lost son, and a very uncertain future.

Although "Trucker" follows a somewhat predictable path for this kind of Southwest drama and doesn't offer much that's new (Ashley Judd has been down this road a few times), its great strength is as a character piece. From the first scene, before any credits roll, we get a sense of who Diane is after she has a brief one-night motel encounter with some nameless guy. She refuses to give him her number and returns to the comfort of her big rig. It says so much about who she is and how she lives that it beautifully sets up the complicated path she's about to travel. We immediately know this is someone who takes no prisoners and needs no conventional life. Only something from her past that she also has shut the door on can take her off the highway she feels she was born to roam.

Monaghan, a well-known actor in popcorn fare like "Mission: Impossible III," "Eagle Eye," and "Made of Honor," shows as she did in Ben Affleck's "Gone Baby Gone" that she's got acting chops to match her looks. This is an authentic, full-bodied, three-dimensional portrayal of a woman who thinks she knows where she's going but has clearly lost her way. "Trucker" (an unfortunate, generic title) is her triumph, one of the best performances you will see in this, or any other, year. As her buddy, Fillion is charming and perfectly cast, while in just one scene Bratt is terrific, giving strong shading to a dying man who became frustrated by Diane's fierce independence and long absences.

With the sad state of the indie film business today, "Trucker" is probably headed for a fast exit to Netflix. But thanks to Monaghan, it's a trip well worth taking no matter where you may find it.

Genre: Drama. Written and directed by: James Mottern. Starring: Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Joey Lauren Adams, Jimmy Bennett.