Grace Is Gone

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Grace Is Gone

Dad And Gone
Father and two daughters confront worst kind of loss

Release Date: Oct. 5
Director/Writer: James C. Strouse
Cinematographer: Jean-Louis Bompoint
Starring: John Cusack, Shelan O'Keefe, Grace Bednarczyk
Studio/Run Time: The Weinstein Company, 90 mins.

When Stanley learns that his wife, a soldier serving in Iraq, has been killed in the line of duty, he’s understandably devastated. He sinks into his easy chair and dreads the moment when his two little girls will get home from school and he’ll need to tell them their mother is gone.

James Strouse’s new film, Grace is Gone, hangs in that moment for the next 85 minutes, extending the dread well beyond the girls’ return. Unable to give them the news, Stanley concocts a reason to pile everyone in the car and take a road trip to Enchanted Gardens, a fictional theme park one day’s drive away. He tells himself it’ll be a final day of fun for the girls before their world comes crashing down, but he’s really stalling, trying to figure out what to say.

Of the movies about America’s involvement in Iraq, Grace is Gone is the strangest. Stanley is a conservative supporter of the war, but politics are beside the point. This is a personal story, and if it can help share some of the pain felt by people who’ve lost someone in the war with those of us who haven’t, I suppose it’s productive.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the entire concept is a manipulation, a series of speed bumps and delaying tactics that must inevitably end in tears. As the girls grow increasingly suspicious of this spontaneous trip proposed by their stern father, Stanley seems all the more insane. Heidi, the older of the two girls, played by 12-year-old Shélan O’Keefe, is particularly well cast. She’s smart enough to know something’s wrong, but fragile enough that the thought of her mother being taken from her is nearly unbearable.

John Cusack, of course, isn’t the first actor who comes to mind to play Stanley. Sean Penn or Tim Robbins or any number of angsty scene chewers would make sense in the role, but Cusack, slightly paunchy, wearing square glasses and affecting a near limp, is never believable, which is a big problem in a movie about a single extended deception. He was more transformed in Being John Malkovich, playing a squinting, crouching, greasy-headed puppeteer; here he just seems out of place.

Cusack is one of the film’s producers and probably agreed to lend his celebrity just to get the thing made, but his presence is a no-win situation for the film. If he successfully disappears into the role, he runs the risk of making the movie look like a vanity project, undermining its sincerity.

If he’s not successful, if the Cusack we know emerges from behind those square glasses—as he does when he tries to get the girls excited about the theme park, raising his eyebrows and using phrases like “whaddya say”—he runs the risk of making the entire road trip unintentionally reminiscent of Chevy Chase’s family trek to Wally World.

Despite all of this, when the big scene comes, it slays. It’s as clunky as the rest of the movie, showing only a smidgen of respect by letting audible details of the conversation drift away. (Or was that done to hide bad dialogue?) Nevertheless, it leaves many viewers, including this one, in tears.

But the power of the ending comes not from any grace, so to speak, but from the pain inherent in seeing two children lose their mother. It’s no feat to recognize how emotional this would be, to tell us it’s coming, and to dangle it in front of us for an hour and a half.

Simplicity and emotion aren’t crimes, but they require finesse and precision. Chaplin’s The Kid and De Sica’s Umberto D. are no more complicated than Grace is Gone, but they don’t sacrifice logic to reach their emotional highs, and they peak at moments of empathy rather than catharsis. Strouse asks us to hang everything on an increasingly preposterous premise while he waits to cash in his chips. Like many other people who saw the film at Sundance, I came out of the theater misty and somber, but even then it was clear that Grace is Gone had precious little to grab onto. Now, months later, it feels ?imsy as cardboard.