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Survivors must regroup after 'Grace Is Gone'

John Cusack stars in a story of how a family's loss puts them on the road to understanding.

December 07, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

The directorial debut of screenwriter James C. Strouse, "Grace Is Gone" is an emotionally rich and satisfying drama featuring a terrifically understated performance from John Cusack. In a year that has seen wave after wave of films addressing the war in Iraq with varying degrees of anger and frustration, "Grace" serves as a gently thoughtful coda and reminder of what continues.

We've seen "the knock at the door" scene in countless movies. A family's lives are upended when uniformed military personnel arrive to convey the news they've dreaded since their loved one was deployed. It's usually a wife or mother who answers the door.

In "Grace," winner of the audience and Waldo Salt screenwriting awards at Sundance this year, the knock comes early one morning for Stanley Phillips (Cusack), a Minnesota home-supply store manager with two young daughters. A former soldier himself, he is proud of his wife's service and quick to speak out in favor of his country's role as an international defender; however, that does nothing to lessen the impact of the news of his wife Grace's death.

Nor does it prepare him for telling his daughters, 12-year-old Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk). Cusack portrays Stanley with a physical and emotional awkwardness that speaks volumes from the moment he lumbers toward the camera in the Home Store stockroom. He seems thicker than we've seen the actor before, and his usual fast-talking, high-energy cadences are muted in Stanley's soft, deliberate speech.

Outdated, outsized rectangular-framed glasses are forever slipping down his nose, and the small gesture of repositioning them would seem to suggest the ongoing futility with which he approaches his days. Stanley's relationship with his daughters is uncomfortable and detached. Though he is physically present, readying them for school and preparing their meals, Stanley is unable to provide the emotional support they need, and the girls miss their mother more than they will ever let on to him.

Strouse matter-of-factly introduces us to their daily routines, efficiently establishing the family dynamics before unleashing the fulcrum effects of the knock. Stanley is a man treading water, and though he would not admit it, the sooner his wife returned home, the better it would be for everyone.

That she won't be returning at all lands like a body blow, knocking his stooped, bathrobe-clad figure into an easy chair, where he awaits the arrival of his daughters from school. When they appear, he panics and insists they jump into the car and go out for dinner, but once at the restaurant he realizes he needs more time to prepare, and they impulsively set out on a road trip for an amusement park in Florida.

The movie is then essentially a road picture, with Heidi slightly suspicious of her father's uncharacteristically spontaneous behavior and Dawn simply thrilled to be having some unscheduled fun. The intimate time spent on the highway moving from motel to motel with a stopover at Grandma's house is the film's strength, a dramatist's dream if not cinematically overwhelming.

Strouse and Cusack ever so adeptly peel away Stanley's inhibitions as he is forced to face the emotional gap within his family before he can even conceive of telling Heidi and Dawn the truth. "Transformation" would be far too strong a word, as the changes are subtle and incremental. This is not a film about an overnight awakening but of a man slowly chipping away at the frost that has formed around his heart.

As they move closer to the literal destination, Strouse supplies the audience with the same gut-wrenching inevitability faced by Stanley. Clint Eastwood's score, added post-Sundance, is subtle and poignant, and remains mostly on the edges. The sweetness of the tiny scenes that accumulate between the father and his daughters is continuously made bitter by the knowledge of what he must eventually do.

The scenes between Cusack and O'Keefe are especially moving, with the young actress more than holding her own. Even as Heidi accumulates evidence that everything is not fine, she remains reticent to challenge her dad and late in the movie begins to look at him as if she is seeing him for the first time.

Simple and straightforward in its approach to its subject, "Grace Is Gone" never condescends to its characters nor strays from its mission. Strouse proves to be an adept storyteller with difficult material.

"Grace Is Gone." MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material, brief strong language and teen smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At AMC Century 15, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 289-4AMC; and Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-3500.

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