June 5, 2008

DVD Review: Grace is Gone

I first heard about Grace is Gone back when it played the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award and Best Screenplay. I recall hearing about it on the Filmspotting podcast, where they spoke of how good the film was. I read up a little on it and thought it was a film I wanted to see. Unfortunately, it never went any wider than seven theaters where it made $50K during its 63 day run, failing to spark much popular interest, thus squashing an thoughts that The Weinstein Company had of rolling it out to the nation. Of course, opening it in December, at the height of the holiday season, was probably not the best time to open such an openly weepy indie film. Although, come to think of it, no matter how good the film may be, it has to be hard to market a film such as this at any time of the year.

Grace is Gone is an independent film from writer/director James C. Strouse. This is his directorial debut and only second screenplay, he first wrote Lonesome Jim, a film starring Casey Affleck and directed by Steve Buscemi. This film is a quiet, sad look into the life of a man struggling to stay afloat and keep his family together in the wake of a family tragedy that threatens to crumble his entire life around him. The story feels very real, but is a complete fiction with elements drawn from Strouse's own life and research done into military families (revealed in an interview with indieWIRE).

This is a heartfelt story that tugs at the heartstrings. It may strike some as manipulative, but I do not subscribe to those thoughts. The story is one that has a strongly organic feel as the characters develop out of the situation. Not everything is explained or spelled out, reasons for why it unfolds the way it does is not there. Much of the surrounding details are left to the viewer to fill in.

John Cusack stars as Stanley Philipps, a father of two, unhappy in work, uncomfortable at home, and lonely in the absence of his wife, Grace, as she is serving in the military, deployed to Iraq. Shortly after the film starts Stan gets the news that Grace has been killed in action. The news devastates him. Despite being well aware of this potential outcome, nothing was able to prepare him for how he would react, including his inability to tell his two daughters what has happened.

Rather than do the deed that he knows he has to do, he instead takes the kids on a spontaneous trip to a distant amusement park. It is a journey that succeeds at two things. First, it offers Stan some time to get to know his daughters. This is a must, as this life-changing event exposes his inability to talk to them. Secondly, the trip allows him to delay telling them the news, allowing them one more happy memory before their lives change forever.

Grace is Gone does not take a direct stand on the war, although there is a talk of it during a scene with Stan's liberal brother, John (Alessandro Nivola). It is much more interested in the characters and how they deal with the news.

John Cusack anchors the film with a captivating performance. He brings so much humanity and genuine emotion to the role that it is hard to look away. The two children, Shelan O'Keefe as Heidi and Gracie Bednarczyk as Dawn, turn in fine performances. Gracie as the younger daughter is reactive and lively, a refreshingly realistic performance. Shelan as the elder gives an effective, more complex performance. The character of Heidi has taken on a motherly role in the absence of their mother, attempting to be mature beyond her years. She is also the character to realize something is wrong with their father, although her youth prevents her from completely understanding what is happening. Together, these three performers deliver a strong core for the story.

Audio/Video. The video is crisp, clear, and free of any noticeable defects. The colors have a washed out look that keeps in tone with the story. The audio is also very good, everything is clear. The surround channels are not terribly active, but this is not that sort of film to worry about that.

Extras. There are a few featurettes included on the disk.
  • A Conversation on Grace. This features interviews with James C. Strouse and cast members such as John Cusack and Shelan O'Keefe. It is an interesting look into the film and how a death such as this can affect so many people. (7 minutes)
  • Inspiration for Grace is Gone. This is the story of Warren Pellegrin, a Marine who met his wife in the service. He lost his wife to an illness contracted while in service as a Navy Lieutenant. This is his story of how he told his children and how they made their way through the tragedy. (5.5 minutes)
  • Profile of TAPS, A Tragedy Assistance Program. This is a look into the program and how it helps people deal with the loss of a loved one. (3.5 minutes)
  • Theatrical Trailer. The original trailer that played a part in spiking my interest in the story. (2.5 minutes)

Bottomline. This is a wonderful little film. I will say that you need to be in the mood for something extraordinarily sad with a touch of hope. This is not light entertainment, but it is a wonderful story told with some wonderful performances.



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