With a few notable exceptions (namely ‘Identity,’ ‘Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil, ‘1408’ and maybe a few others) John Cusack is often known for playing either a teen residing in the 1980’s or a likeable smart-aleck. No matter if he is playing a highbrow, neurotically verbose loser at love or a whip-smart hitman, there is usually some humor at work. Never one to sit still, in ‘Grace Is Gone’ Cusack attempts to explore a straightforward family drama.
Stanley (Cusack) is raising his two daughters Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) and Heidi (Shelan O’Keefe) while his wife/their mother, Grace, is serving in the military over in Iraq. One day, Stanley gets the dreaded visit from the Army chaplain informing him that his wife was killed in action. When it comes time to tell the kids, Stanley can’t bring himself to do it. He hasn’t fully processed the information and doesn’t want to come to terms with it.
When his daughters come home from school, Stanley makes the drastic decision to take them on a road trip, work and school be damned. His youngest, Dawn, wants to go to an amusement park called Enchanted Garden. It’s a way for Stanley to see his daughters happy and to buy time for himself while he figures out how to tell them the news. Dawn is thrilled with the idea but Heidi has some suspicions that something is up.
This is a story where the ending is almost inevitable. That’s not a spoiler, because the audience almost always knows more than most of the characters at any given time. The experience isn’t ruined because, as a road movie, it’s more about the journey than the destination. Still, it would have been a bonus if there were some surprises or revelations. Things are played as close to the vest as humanly possible. Despite this, when the moment of truth arrives, it is genuinely affecting.
Little moments between father and daughters add up to make this film what it is. Whereas Stanley was strict and rarely could relax with his children before, the film sees him gradually cutting loose. His decision to break out of a bleak routine with a series of spontaneous choices might not be correct according to a good psychiatrist, but he deliberately obliterates some long-standing family rules for the sake of fun.
From a technical standpoint, this is one of Cusack’s very best performances. It’s something he hasn’t really attempted before and during certain scenes, he comes across even older than his years. A few scenes make use of a handheld camera which helps to convey the unsteady emotional state of Stanley. It’s the long-term anxiety and the weight of responsibility that his character seems to carry with him. After getting to know the daughters throughout the story, their contrasting personalities come through quite well. Even though he is only in the story for a few minutes, Stanley’s deadbeat brother John (Alessandro Nivola) is quite the counterpoint, playing the opinionated liberal with something to say about the war effort.
Special features include: a conversation with the filmmaker/cast of the film and a trailer.
At a slight 84 minutes (more like 80 minutes without credits) there isn’t a lot to ‘Grace Is Gone,’ though that means it also means that it’s efficiently told story. The strong acting carries an almost open-ended story and the seemingly insignificant details add up to more than the sum of the parts. There might not be a lot of replay value for some people, because it is heavy subject matter, but it absolutely deserves to be seen at least once.
Rated PG-13 84 minutes 2007
‘Grace Is Gone’ is available to rent/purchase in Allentown, the Lehigh Valley, and beyond.
Fun bonus facts: Clint Eastwood handled the film’s score and Cusack was a producer, a role he has taken on more often lately.