GRACE IS GONE
Director: James C. Strouse
Screenwriter: James C. Strouse
Executive Producers: Reagan Silber, Paul Bernstein
Producers: Galt Niederhoffer, John Cusack, Grace Loh, Celine Rattray, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Cast: John Cusack, Alessandro Nivola, Shélan O'Keefe, Gracie Bdenarczyk
Sony HD Cam
USA, 2006, 90 min.
*Stanley Phillips, a patriot and father of two, is overwhelmed when he gets news that his wife, Grace, has been killed in the Iraq war. Though distraught himself, he tries to rally the strength to tell his young daughters. Instead, he bundles them in the car and heads out on a road trip to their favorite amusement park. Inside, he knows what he needs to do. But he must first learn who his daughters are before he can begin helping them overcome this tragedy.
John Cusack's achingly poignant performance is the backbone of Grace Is Gone. He is always superb in finding pathos in characters, but as Stanley, he exhibits a newfound maturity as an actor. His two young costars turn in amazingly realistic performances as they attempt to decipher their dad's sporadic behavior, and Alessandro Nivola, as the liberal brother, is the perfect foil for Stanley's belief systems.
With an elegant film that's as topical as it is devastating, writer/director James Strouse rightfully secures a place on the indie scene. His dialogue is sparse; instead, carefully chosen images convey this family's difficulty in reconnecting. That Grace Is Gone can be construed as promilitary guarantees its greatest impact. It is sure to be exalted as the freshest and best antiwar movie of this troubled time.
*Summary by John Cooper, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
For me, it didn’t get any better than Grace is Gone at this year’s Sundance Festival. It is a very simple and straightforward story, but I just found it wonderful and poignant. It could just be that I am a sucker for cinematic depictions of a father/daughter relationship. I go all misty-eyed and weepy like a little girl. There is just something about the way fathers and daughters interact: the protection, the awkwardness. Yet the sense that there is still a bond between them entirely separate from a mother/daughter dynamic.
John Cusack did a good job playing a strict, sad-sack of a man, a very non-showy role. I liked how one of the most interesting aspects of his character, Stanley, was his walk: hunched over with a bit of a shuffle. All of his emotion is directed inwards, except for a few key sequences. My favorite bit from Cusack was when he loudly and excitedly announces to his kids in the car that they are going to drive down to an amusement park in Florida. At this point, he is hiding his wife’s death from their kids, and that unexpected burst of excitement opens him up enough to feel her loss for the first time. Stanley’s voice is filled with energy, but his face looks like he got hit with a truck. In one moment, it is made abundantly clear to Stanley and the audience that he must keep his emotions bottled up lest he lose emotional control in front of his girls.
The two daughters, Dawn and Heidi, were wonderful characters. The youngest girl, Dawn, has some massive mood swings and can be alternately cute and irritating in the same scene. She speaks her mind, sometimes saying the wrong thing at the right time. Or vice-a-versa. The oldest girl, Heidi, is starting to experience those awkward moments of early adolescence and she wants to spend more time alone, smoking with a boy, pushing her boundaries a bit. Both girl characters felt very real to me, not over cute-sified to garner audience sympathy.
The story starts slowly and I was a little off-put by the scene where the soldiers deliver to Stanley the news that his wife has died in combat. It was very cold, distant, and a strange entry into such an emotional tale. I loved Stanley’s brother, played by Alessandro Nivola, whose house Stanley stops at on his way to Florida. The brother brought in a different viewpoint and though he didn’t enforce his ideas on the young girls, he offered his thoughts up as a different way to view the war and the world. The scene between Stanley and his brother at the dinner table was a great exploration of how to argue ideals in front of two pairs of impressionable ears. I also enjoyed the fact that time was spent showing the silly games the girls would play with their uncle. It is important to feel their lives, get a sense of atmosphere instead of making every scene a plot point.
There were a bunch of wonderful character moments during the van trip south. Though I will admit to getting a little tired of the idea of the families of soldiers keeping a wristwatch alarm set in synch with their loved ones’ watch alarm in the war zone. It is a sweet and poignant idea, but this is the third movie I have seen it used in, one of the other films also playing at this festival. The finale of Grace is Gone proves to be just as cathartic and complete as one expects. I especially liked the silent scenes of happiness at the theme park, set to a melancholy music suite.A very moving story about the toll of war on families back home, Grace is Gone employs no tricks, just straightforward drama. I know others who saw this film at the festival were less impressed with the genuine emotional nature of the film or wanted a more distinguished and professional visual palette. For me, however, this film hit every right note and I look forward to seeing it again when it is widely released in theaters.