Director: James C. Strouse
Much like a bartender trained to blend together enough ingredients to form an ideal cocktail that will both entice patrons yet keep them sober and thirsty enough to come back for more, corporate news television producers have now become near tastemakers. Sifting through various ingredients such as spin and damage control to mix their nightly product-- namely a sound byte heavy drink of selective reality-- these clip-tenders tease us with vague explanations and half-truths so that we’re left thoroughly confused, slightly intoxicated by the concoction and given a false sense of what’s really going on, similar to a cocktail buzz.
Therefore it’s no surprise in the calm light of the following morning that-- instead of a hangover-- news junkies such as myself find ourselves wondering just what the headlines will say next. All the while, we realize that-- in trying to distract us from tragedy with clever graphics instead of paper umbrellas, slices of lime and olives in covering the devastating war in Iraq and especially its overwhelming casualties-- the true lead gets drowned, watered down and poured into the large decorative glass not for martinis but of our television screens.
Not only are our soldiers faced with unspeakable casualties and significant disabilities, as writer/director James C. Strouse asserts in a DVD interview for his feature length filmmaking debut Grace is Gone, for every soldier who is killed overseas, generations are affected as the lives of any number of the soldier’s survivors from tens to hundreds are forever altered. We will never fully be able to calculate the damage done to the American psyche from the horrors of war but just like my generation recalls with our relatives who served in Vietnam as we now find ourselves called to duty in two war-torn countries, the battle continues to be fought back here in the states in the hearts and minds of families, friends, lovers, neighbors, and classmates, consistently ignored by the media in favor of salacious scandals, political infighting, and lurid crimes.
As a father and wanting to somehow translate his perspective on that role onscreen, Strouse penned the unique character driven anti-war film Grace is Gone. Originally attached to director Rob Reiner who dropped out for unspecified reasons (IMDb), in a rather fortunate twist of fate, Strouse took over to helm it, bringing only his second screenplay (after Lonesome Jim, directed by Steve Buscemi) to cinematic life, courtesy of the tremendous support he gained in producer and star John Cusack along with The Weinstein Company and Clint Eastwood who lent his talent by composing the bittersweet, heartbreaking, and breathtakingly nuanced musical score, which is easily Eastwood’s most effective since Million Dollar Baby.
The usually hyper, highly verbal Cusack we’ve come to know and love in Say Anything and High Fidelity turns in one of his finest and most understated, subtle performances as a right wing, strict, conservative Minnesota father of two young daughters (played by the talented Shelan O’Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk) who learns early on into the film that his army sergeant wife has been killed while serving her country in Iraq.
Unable to bring himself to face reality or tell neither his twelve and a half nor eight year old girl, Cusack’s Stanley Philipps makes an impulsive decision to grant the wish of his youngest daughter Dawn (Bednarczyk) to travel to the Disney World like Enchanted Gardens Theme Park.
Skipping out on his job as a manager at a Home Store that he seems to run as though it were the military he fervently loves for which he still seems bitter about not being able to serve, Stanley and the girls leave without luggage or preparation, as he tries to outrun his problems, stopping every so often to phone home, longing to hear his deceased wife’s voice and also try and speak with her again one last time.
While admittedly, one knows going in that the film is going to be unspeakably sad, it’s a riveting road film and a meaningful study of fatherhood as Stanley along with the audience begins to realize, similar to Strouse’s intention, that heroes come in all types and we can all be heroic on a different scale. Clocking in at just eighty-five minutes, the most frequently discussed detraction among critics and viewers was that given the film’s title and inevitability that Stanley will have to share with the girls what happened to their mother, is that the film seems to lack an arc and doesn’t offer its audience much in the way of a dynamic plot.
However, it’s a poetic decision by Strouse to trust his own work and its authenticity as a character piece and one that invites introspection, not to overload it with filmmaking-by-the-numbers plot points or unbelievable quirky characters thrown in for our amusement similar to the decorative ingredients mixed into the evening news or shaken into a drink. No, it’s Stanley’s story first and foremost and by extension the coming-of-age and loss-of-innocence of his wide-eyed daughters including the lonely Dawn and wise-beyond-her-years Heidi (played phenomenally by O’Keefe) that manages to keep us invested, all the while breaking our hearts with nothing watered down, nothing drowned in sound bytes-- the lead right where it’s supposed to be-- right in front of our eyes instead of buried beneath the distractions.