Thursday, July 29, 2010

Grace is Gone, But Cusack is Back

Grace is Gone
Written & Directed by James C. Strouse
Running Time: 85 minutes
Originally Released: January 21, 2007 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * (out of four)

I used to consider John Cusack one of my favorite actors. Since the turn of the century, however, he’s starred in a fair share of stinkers—Identity, Must Love Dogs, The Ice Harvest, Martian Child, and War, Inc. were all quite bad to terrible. Thus it is with great enthusiasm that I celebrate Grace is Gone, the best John Cusack movie (and performance) since 2000’s High Fidelity.

Stanley Phillips (Cusack) lives with his two daughters in suburban Minnesota. His wife, Grace, is fighting overseas, a soldier in the Iraq War. It’s not a situation Stanley is entirely comfortable with, but not because he is opposed to the war or to Grace’s fighting in it. On the contrary, Stanley is quite proud of his wife. It’s just that he’s somewhat lost without her, uncertain of his abilities as a father and quite literally the odd man out at the support group for wives of deployed soldiers. When Stanley is informed that Grace has been killed in battle, it’s as if he needs Grace to walk him through the grieving process herself. Of course, she cannot do this, and Stanley is emotionally paralyzed. He also finds himself unable to break the news to his daughters, 12-year-old Heidi (Shélan O’Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk), opting instead to propose an impromptu road trip to Enchanted Gardens, a beloved Florida amusement park. The vacation is not so much an act of denial as it is a prolonged intake of breath while Stanley musters up the courage to speak words he’s hoped never to have the occasion to use.

With issues of war and death at its center, Grace is Gone traverses a minefield of emotional triggers that could easily blow up and destroy the sincerity of the film if writer/director James C. Strouse did not tread so lightly. Fortunately, Grace is Gone is a model of delicate filmmaking. There is no sensationalism in it, no preaching to the audience on the tragedies of war. There are some brief differences of opinion expressed between Stanley and his free-spirited (or maybe just lazy) brother, John (Alessandro Nivola), but the movie itself remains pleasantly neutral on the subject of war. One gets the impression Grace could just as well have been a firefighter or had some other inherently dangerous profession and the film would not have changed all that much. That’s a good thing. The focus here is on Stanley, Heidi, and Dawn, which is where it should be. For this family, Grace’s death is the loss of a wife and mother, not a political revelation. Strouse never pretends otherwise, and the film is all the better for it.

As noted, Cusack is the finest he’s been in years. In the role of Stanley, Cusack deftly captures the look and feel of an emotionally and physically tired middle-aged fragile father. It is so unlike any previous Cusack role we’ve seen that we might be amused had Cusack not carried it off so nobly. But as nice a performance as Cusack delivers, it is his onscreen daughters who steal the show. Grace is Gone provides the first and so far only cinematic roles for O’Keefe and Bednarczyk, who come off as seasoned veterans. O’Keefe is especially powerful as a pensive young girl whose maturity and wisdom is more a product of emotional survival than of raw intelligence. The character of Heidi intuits her father’s need for strength and consequently acts as a proxy second adult in the home. It’s a big role for a girl that could still be called little, and O’Keefe handles it more impressively than many actors who have done less and been nominated for an Academy Award in the process. Between them, O’Keefe and Bednarczyk deliver some of the best performances from young actors that I can remember. They alone make Grace is Gone worthy of a viewing.

With sadness permeating the storyline, Grace is Gone could just as easily have been depressing as tender. It succeeds at being tender because of the authenticity that Cusack, O’Keefe, and Bednarczyk bring to their roles. The sincerity of their performances breaks through the film’s somber shell and allows it to be about a family and not about sadness itself. Forgive the obvious pun, but the film is graceful. It feels very personal, but personal to the fictional characters onscreen rather than to the filmmakers, which is an accomplishment. In short, Grace is Gone is the kind of movie people have in mind when they speak of a film being a “gem.” It’s simple, it’s honest. It’s not groundbreaking, but it shines.

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