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1 review, 4 user ratings

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Grace is Gone
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by Jay Seaver

"A respect-baiting performance, sure. But a good one."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: 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.

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originally posted: 09/16/07 01:15:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Boston Film Festival For more in the 2007 Boston Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Lake County Film Festival For more in the 2008 Lake County Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/15/10 the dork knight Great acting by the girls. Cusak overplays it. 3 stars
8/30/08 Random I love it a lot 5 stars
6/01/08 Jacqueline Carpenter I liked it a little 3 stars
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  07-Dec-2007 (PG-13)
  DVD: 27-May-2008



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