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`Gracie's' awkward but still a winner

June 01, 2007|Lael Loewenstein | Special to The Times

A struggling teenage girl finds personal redemption through soccer in "Gracie," an earnest, well-acted, poignant drama that nevertheless runs afoul of sports movie cliches.

Not that you can blame it for trying. The inspirational sports film, so inherently irresistible, has become such a cinema fixture that it has nearly lost its resonance; the prospect of breathing new life into the formula is virtually a Herculean task in itself. "Gracie's" road has been paved by the likes of "Rocky," "Rudy" and Ralph Macchio, and there will always be one more underdog trying to make good.

Set in suburban New Jersey circa 1978, "Gracie" is, in large measure, the story of a girl's journey through grief. When her older brother, Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer), a high school soccer star, dies in a car accident, 15-year-old Gracie (Carly Schroeder) sinks into a deep depression.

Already a skillful soccer player under Johnny's guidance, Gracie realizes that the path to her recovery involves the game they both loved. But without a girls' soccer league, Gracie resolves to earn a spot on the boys' team. Her announcement meets with disbelief from her mother (Elisabeth Shue), disapproval from her father (Dermot Mulroney), a firm refusal from the coach (John Doman) and, from the boys, the same sort of disdain that Demi Moore battled in "G.I. Jane."

When Gracie sets off on a self-destructive course, however, her dad steps in to save her, insisting that he's "not going to lose another child." Under his rigorous coaching, Gracie improves her game enough to petition the school board to allow her a tryout. That school hearing offers Shue her best scene: Wobbly, emotional and a little inarticulate, she pleads for her daughter to be given a chance to fulfill her dream.

It would be giving too much away to reveal what happens next, but it's safe to say that "Gracie" delivers where it is supposed to and mercifully avoids at least one predictable moment with an unexpected twist. Would that it had avoided others. In its visual composition and use of certain dramatic metaphors, "Gracie" has a tendency to underscore "big" moments in ways that don't always feel completely organic.

Nevertheless, some creative choices do work: The film has a grainy, slightly low-resolution look that aptly evokes the era, as well as a particularly evocative soundtrack, including songs by Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin. And the cast, headed by the rapidly maturing Schroeder ("Mean Creek"), is terrific across the board.

What sets this film apart is that "Gracie" is an intensely personal project, inspired at least in part by events in the life of Shue and her family. As a girl in New Jersey, Shue played soccer on boys' teams and later lost her brother Will in an accident. Along with her other brother, Andrew, she's a credited producer on the film. Andrew, who also shares story credit and has a small role as an assistant coach, has played professional soccer. And Elisabeth's husband, Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth"), directed.

With so much invested in this film, "Gracie" represents the culmination of a family dream, so you can't really blame it for wearing its heart on its sleeve.

"Gracie." MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In general release.

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