The saga of an Iraq War widower who takes his daughters on a road trip to a Florida amusement park because he can’t bring himself to tell them their mother is dead, Grace Is Gone is an unabashed home-front tearjerker of the sort they used to release every three days during World War II. It’s also about as subtle as a Mack truck bearing down on a school crossing—the tasteful but continuous emotionalism is such a blunt instrument that the choice is to either be slammed head-on or else to get out of the way.
What saves Grace from Lifetime Channel bathos is writer/director James C. Strouse’s instinct for unsensationalized directness in his camerawork and the film’s two core performances from Cusack and 12-year-old Shelan O’Keefe. As Stanley Phillips, Cusack’s embodiment of middle-class average-ness is complete and masterful, not only in the big emotional scenes but in the marginal details: the shuffling, constricted way Stanley walks down the aisles of the hardware superstore where he works; the irritable and unthinking middle-aged masculinity he often inflicts on his daughters. Absent wife Grace is never depicted, but we know her even before her death by what’s missing between Stanley and his kids—there’s warmth there but reduced in intensity, the way a car battery loses energy when the lights are left on too long in order to try to see in the dark.
Despite Cusack’s modulated precision, it’s O’Keefe as 12-year-old Heidi who is the moral center of Grace Is Gone, giving one of those remarkably truthful performances that children sometimes inexplicably achieve. O’Keefe’s Heidi is equal parts naif and x-ray machine. She misses nothing but approaches the world with the learned helplessness of someone whose life to date has consisted of following grown-up instructions. Plagued by insomnia and secretly writing a paper for school about her mother as a way of keeping Mom close, Heidi is already a passenger in the lifeboat her life has become. Even before the climactic revelation, there’s heartbreak in just watching Heidi be. It’s hard to remember a more realized depiction of the beauties and terrors of adolescence in a recent American film.
Some objections could be raised to the schematic ways Strouse stacks an already forced deck. Though well acted by Alessandro Nivola, Stanley’s brother John is a righteous liberal of the most craven sort—a bloviating, jobless non-voter living at his mother’s house at age 32. John’s knee-jerk insistence on denouncing the war to Stanley and his children would be callous even in the situation as he knows it, which is that Grace is in harm’s way. The audience knows Grace is dead, though, and that makes John unendurable. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to make absolutely sure military families know they’re on their side, and so they’ve presented them with a Rush Limbaugh caricature of war resistance and then used sentiment rather than reason to pick him off like a cardboard duck in a shooting gallery. As a character, John is not just a distorted simplification of nonmilitary opposition to the war. The presumptions Grace Is Gone is making about what constitutes wish-fulfillment for military families during the ongoing crisis in Iraq seem deformed as well.
Far truer and certainly more emotionally persuasive is the film’s depiction of a man taking one last journey with his children as they were before their childhood is torn forever from their grasp. From Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac, from Moby Dick to Easy Rider, the reigning metaphor for the American experience has been the far horizon and the voyage of personal discovery heading for it brings. Grace Is Gone proves it’s still an apt metaphor in this time of manifold sorrows, and the impacts of a dark military odyssey whose vanishing point still can’t even be glimpsed.
Distributor: Weinstein Co.
Cast: John Cusack, Shelan O’Keefe, Grace Bednarczyk and Alessandro Nivola
Director/Screenwriter: James C. Strouse
Producers: Galt Niederhoffer, John Cusack, Grace Loh, Celine Rattray and Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, brief strong language and teen smoking
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: December 7, 2007 ltd.