Saturday, September 15, 2007

BFF: Grace Is Gone

It's a good thing Grace is Gone is a good movie, because if it hadn't been, yesterday would have been a complete disaster.

I don't expect film festivals to run on time - it's one of the reasons to get a pass, since then you at least have the option of making new plans when late starts and long Q&As kick in. What happened yesterday was ridiculous, though - the festival organizers didn't arrive at the theater until a half hour before the film was scheduled to start, then they waited for the director to arrive because his driver was lost. When he got there, they couldn't make the sound work on the digital projection, misdiagnosed the problem at least twice, and were in fact ready to show another film until finally figuring it out over an hour after the original 7:30 start time. And even then, the sound was badly out of sync for the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film.

I'm forgiving of festivals, in general; these things happen. But I must admit, I'm approaching today with some trepidation - if this is what goes wrong with one movie on one screen, how will a full weekend slate fare?

Grace Is Gone

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

The word on Grace Is Gone is that it might be the film that secures John Cusack his first Oscar nomination. I wouldn't bet against that - it's a good performance, after all, and this is the type of movie that exists for the express purpose of displaying good performances. While it does that, though, it also manages to tell a nice little story in a way that could have been politically charged but is instead quite down-to-earth.

Cusack plays Stanley Philips, a manager at a Minnesota Home Store. His wife, Grace, is a master sergeant in the U.S. Army currently stationed in Iraq. They have two daughters, eight-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) and twelve-and-a-half-year-old Heidi (Shélan O'Keefe), whom he doesn't let watch the news. While they're at school, an officer and a chaplain from the nearby base arrive to tell him that Grace has been killed in action. He can't bring himself to tell the girls, though, and when Dawn answers "Enchanted Garden" to his question of where they want to go, he impulsively decides to drive to the Florida amusement park with them, despite school being in session. Dawn's excited, but Heidi's smart and perceptive enough to realize that something is very wrong.

Writer/director James Strouse knows not to do too much here; this story is all about Stanley and the girls, and the camera seldom strays from them. There is only one other character of any real import - Stanley's brother, John (Alessandro Nivola) - and he's confined to one segment of the movie. A bigger-budget film might have opened with footage of Grace in Iraq, but we never actually see her as more than a photograph, or a disembodied voice on the family's answering machine. The rightness or wrongness of the war itself isn't really an issue except as something that John and Stanley argue about (an argument, we sense, that has gone on for years), because it really doesn't matter in this particular situation for these people.

The production of the film is stripped down to the bare essentials. Nothing looks like a set; there's a distinct lack of ornamentation to many of the places the family stops that makes them seem bigger and emptier than a created place might. I'm somewhat curious to see what Jean-Louis Bompoint's cinematography will look like when the film his general release; it was projected digitally for the festival screening, and there is something fitting about this movie looking like a blown-up home video; it gives what we see the look of a family trip rather than a story. Clint Eastwood's piano-based score also feels small and intimate, just enough to avoid silence when necessary but never enough to overshadow the characters.

John Cusack is, indeed, very good here. At first, he seems to be trying a bit too hard - the stiff body language and somewhat clipped manner of speaking seeming like a very deliberate attempt to show that, see, he's got range, he can do things other than the nerdily cute, talkative guys he's become known for. That eventually disappears, though, in part because we're supposed to see that Stanley is acting - he's trying to look happy for the girls even as his world has fallen apart. There's a certain rigidity to him that is kind of off-putting, even when John gives us a little insight into it. Cusack and Nivola make for a nice contrast, too - their political disagreements show each as flawed, though in different ways.

The other set of siblings almost manages to upstage them, though. I was reminded of the Bolger sisters from In America while watching Gracie Bednarczyk and Shélan O'Keefe, which is some of the highest praise I can give them. They never seem to be playing a part, especially when they're doing things like fighting in the back of the car or begging their dad to get their ears pierced. They just act like kids, especially Bednarczyk - it's a complete gut punch when the loud, energetic Dawn gets some idea of what's really going on. O'Keefe is just exceptional in what appears to be her first film role; where Stanley gets hit with everything all at once, Heidi only gradually figures out what's going on, and her confusion is as poignant as her father's devastation.

Grace is Gone has a few faults - the space between Minnesota and Florida feels sort of homogeneous, so that despite the days of driving we never really get the feeling that the Philipses are really on a long trip, for instance - but it's got two really excellent performances from John Cusack and Shélan O'Keefe (along with two in the "pretty darn good" category from Nivola and Bednarczyk). Whatever one's opinion on the war that kills Gracie is, the movie about the aftermath is well worth seeing.

Also at eFilmCritic.

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