Grace Is Gone
John Cusack takes it down several notches in Grace Is Gone, James C. Strouse's somber, well-acted family mourning tale.
With his soldier wife, Grace, deployed in Iraq, Midwestern home supply store manager Stanley Philipps (John Cusack) is doing his best to be both mom and dad to Heidi, 12, and Dawn, 8. He doesn't have much of a support network--the military spouses' group he attends exactly once is all women, who spend most of the meeting talking about sex (or lack thereof)--so when he gets the news he's been dreading, he has no idea what to do. Unable to tell Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe) and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) that their mom won't be coming home, he instead impulsively takes them on a road trip to a far-away amusement park. Bouncy, eager Dawn is unreservedly thrilled, but introspective, responsible Heidi knows something's up. As Stanley fumbles his way toward the sad truth, the wounded family's physical and emotional journey proves quietly touching, if not wholly gut-wrenching.
From the first moment that Cusack appears on screen, you know that Stanley isn't one of his typical hyper-verbal hipsters. Dressed in beige and sporting dorky Clark Kent glasses, Stanley is 100 percent Regular Guy, and Cusack dials down his usual energy to make the character convincing. It sometimes seems like he's overcompensating a bit--only in a few scenes does Stanley really seem to wake up--but the character is a man stunned by grief. Cusack is ably matched by newcomer O'Keefe, who's stellar as Heidi. Aged prematurely by her mother's absence, Heidi is conscientious and thoughtful, with an independent streak that makes her act out even when she doesn't fully understand what's going on. O'Keefe fully inhabits her character, making Heidi believable as a daughter, a sister (the girls' interactions are refreshingly realistic), and a child on the verge of adolescence.
Pushed slightly one way or the other, Grace Is Gone could easily have become a propaganda piece either for or against the current war in Iraq. But writer/director James C. Strouse manages, for the most part, to walk the tricky line between flag-waving patriotism and anti-war zeal. Grace--and her contribution to her country--are honored, but the devastation that follows a soldier's fall is made clear. What Strouse doesn't do quite as well is let his audience form their own emotional responses to his film. From the spare, bleak score to the wrenching scenes of grief, Grace can feel a bit manipulative (''you will be sad now!''). Perhaps for that reason, it ultimately doesn't have the impact it clearly intended. Even the climactic, cathartic scenes feel a little removed--maybe if we knew Grace like Stanley, Heidi, and Dawn did, we'd be able to mourn her more passionately.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.