GRACE IS GONE (2007)
Starring John Cusack, Shélan O’Keefe, Gracie Bednarczyk, Alessandro Nivola, Dana Lynne Gilhooley, Emily Churchill, Rebecca Spence, Jennifer Tyler, Susan Messing, Doug Dearth, Doug James, Zachary Gray, Marisa Tomei and Mary Kay Place.
Screenplay by James C. Strouse.
Directed by James C. Strouse.
Distributed by The Weinstein Company. 85 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Topical movies on the current war in Iraq have been met with serious resistance. With the approval rating of the war hovering around 30% in the US, people don’t seem to want to go to the multiplexes to ponder a war that many consider a mistake – and those who believe the cause to be just are probably just as adamant about not wanting to see a film that quite probably demeans a cause they believe in.
It’s not really a new problem, serious movies about Vietnam (such as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter) didn’t start showing up until 1978, four years after the war was over. Films made during the war tended to be more jingoistic pro-war propaganda like The Green Berets. The first war in Iraq also really did not become the inspiration for thoughtful films until years later, such as Three Kings, BlackHawk Down and Jarhead.
However, the current war in Iraq is possibly even more divisive than Vietnam (and certainly more than Desert Storm). Many, in and out of Hollywood, have strong opinions of Bush’s war and it has inspired some great documentaries. Unlike most other past wars though, dramatic films which are making pointed social commentary (not always negative) about the conflict are flowing out even before the war has any end in sight. (Though, this may have something to do with the fact that the war has already lasted significantly longer than Desert Storm and almost as long as Vietnam.) The quality of these films (which include such titles as Stop Loss, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Rendition, Blue State and War Inc.) has been mixed: some are quite thought-provoking while others may be a little harder to get behind.
Grace is Gone is a little different because it tries to take a more intimate look at effects of the war – not by focusing on the battles or politics of Iraq themselves but by looking at the consequences of the war for the people who are left behind at home.
The title soldier, Grace Philipps, is never seen except in snapshots. She is not heard except for on two answering machine messages (one outgoing, one incoming). Yet her life – and her death – set in motion a series of events that drive this occasionally far-fetched but mostly touching drama.
The film instead revolves around her husband, Stanley, played by John Cusack. Stanley believes in the war – in fact he would be there himself if not for his bad eyesight. One day he answers the door and finds two men in uniform looking for him. Being former military he knows what it means and tries not to let them into the house, in a shell-shocked misguided hope that if he doesn’t allow the soldiers to tell him his wife was killed in battle then she will somehow still be alive.
Stanley and Grace have two daughters: Heidi (Shélan O’Keefe), a smart, quiet and thoughtful twelve-year-old and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk), a more innocent and upbeat eight-year-old. Stanley can not quite bring himself to break the horrible news, and so on a whim he decides to drop everything to drive them cross-country to a Florida amusement park where Dawn has been wanting to go. He rationalizes that he wants them to have a few last days of fun before learning of their mother’s death, however from the outside it seems like a stalling technique.
Dawn is oblivious to what is happening, but Heidi silently starts to suspect the true meaning behind her father’s sudden erratic behavior and desperate need to keep them happy.
It’s a tricky scenario, one which can be formulaic and manipulative. And, honestly, Grace is Gone does stumble into formula and manipulation sometimes. However, it is saved by the uniformly fine acting. Cusack in particular does some of his best work in years. He allows Stanley to be imperfect – cut off from his feelings, out of shape, stubborn and in denial. Yet he also finds the deep reservoir of sorrow in this man who does not know how to communicate that he is in pain and the true, deep love for his daughters. He doesn’t know what to do, but he knows he wants to shield them from pain for as long as he can. His scenes with O’Keefe – who deftly avoids any child actress cutesiness and whose young eyes and expressive face transmit a restless, questing intuition beyond her years – work particularly well.
Still, too much of the film you can’t help but wonder why Stanley can’t level with his daughters. The road trip doesn’t merely seem quixotic, it sometimes seems like it might actively be detrimental to his daughters’ mental development. How will they react to finding out their father has known for days that their mother was dead and didn’t tell them? Will waiting until after the park trip to break it to the girls warp their ideas of parks and pleasure trips for the rest of their lives? Will they never be able to think of the Enchanted Garden without crying because their father could not quite bring himself to tell them at home? Is it okay to give the girls anything they want as a way to avoid discussing tragedy?
Still, even if Grace is Gone is imperfect, it is undeniably moving – particularly in the scene where the father finally realizes that he can no longer shield his daughters from reality.
It just accents the most basic truth. The real cost of war is in the people killed in combat and the loved ones who are left behind.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 24, 2008.