Movie review of Grace is Gone, official entry of the Sundance Film Festival
By Stacy Dymalski
It’s no secret that the bulk of American people are disillusioned with the War in Iraq. What started out as a nationwide united front on the war on terror has now morphed into a concerned country that wants nothing more than their sons, daughters, husbands and wives to come home safely. The war on terror is even more terrifying when it creeps down to an average American’s miniscule level and takes away their loved ones. Unfortunately, for those with friends and relatives stationed in the Middle East, homeland security has come to mean losing the security of having your family at home, sometimes forever.
Which is exactly the point of the Sundance competition film Grace is Gone, written and directed by James C. Strouse, and starring John Cusack, who also executive produced the film. In this illustration of how an everyday family deals with the grief brought on by war, Cusack plays Stanley Phillips, a red, white, and blue American who supports the efforts made by the good ole U.S. of A. to ensure world peace. Stanley himself had planned to make a career in the military, but was blind sighted when he didn’t pass the eye exam. As a result, he was discharged early, but not before he met his wife, Grace, who also is as patriotic as fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Stanley and Grace get married and have a couple of daughters, who are now (in the movie) ages 12 and eight. The twist in this story is that after Stanley comes home to civilian life, Grace continues her career in the military, and ends up serving in Iraq. Stanley has an uneventful job as a manager at a home improvement store, while raising his daughters as a temporarily single parent. All very middle American, except that mom is off fighting a war on foreign soil.
A few minutes into the story Stanley gets the news that Grace has been killed in the line of duty. Stunned and devastated, Stanley spends the rest of the film trying to figure out how he will tell his daughters. A small act, you may think, but given the emotional enormity of this task, it makes you stop and wonder, how does a father tell his little girls they’ll never see their mother again because she’s been killed in a war that the nation, and maybe even he himself, has lost faith in? When is a person ever equipped to handle that? How do you justify to 12 and eight-year-old children that Mom will never again attend their piano recitals? Chaperone a field trip? Sit at the dinner table?
Stanley is at a loss. Unable to think straight, he embarks on a road trip with the girls to a Florida amusement park. The girls go along with it, but they can tell there’s something up with Dad because he’s acting so weird; one minute being dangerously over indulgent, the next yelling at them for the smallest things.
Cusack does a very believable job as an average father who initially doesn’t have the strength to tell his daughters what they need to know. We see from the beginning (before he learns his wife is dead) that Stanley is emotionally stunted, going through the daily motions of a job he doesn’t like, living a lonely life he wishes could be different. Given this brief set-up, we understand why he can’t bring himself to be open and honest with his daughters; he’s probably never been open and honest about anything with anyone. I personally like the character subtlety Cusack chose. It might have been too over-the-top for Stanley to start out as a happy man, who turns into an overly dramatic emotional pile after his wife’s death. Instead he’s just an average guy, ill-equipped to deal with the tragic circumstances at hand, simply trying to maintain some sort of normalcy until he can figure out how to share this trauma with his daughters. What exactly is the blueprint for a person faced with this experience? Who can really say until they’ve gone through it?
In addition to Cusack, Shélan O’Keefe and Gracie Bednarczky as the daughters fill out the family triangle. O’Keefe in particular is great as a preteen who questions her father, but still is not old enough to have the confidence to stand up to him and demand to know what’s going on. Instead, she handles her confusion in a normal preteen way with defiant passive aggressive outbursts. Being a parent of a child this exact same age, I find her behavior to ring absolutely true to character.
Many critics will say this film is overly emotional, but given the subject matter, I don’t know how you could eliminate the emotion and still portray the pain of these characters. Unlike other movies about loss due to war, this story is on such a personal level, that an audience would be robbed if emotion weren’t front and center. I will concede, however, that the musical score was a bit unnecessarily sappy. The writing and performances were strong enough to stand on their own without the inclusion of the cliché, soap-opera style piano gushing in the background. As far music is concerned, less would have been more in this case.
However, this small criticism isn’t enough to take away from the impact of the film. In Grace is Gone we get to experience an aspect of war we seldom see or hear about in the news; that being the permanent mark it leaves on the average human being we pass on the street. This graceful little movie gives us insight into a situation we all hope we never have to personally endure.