DVD Release Date:  May 27, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  December 7, 2007
Rating:  PG-13 (for thematic material, brief strong language and teen smoking)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  95 min.
Director:  James C. Strouse
Actors:  John Cusack, Shelan O’Keefe, Gracie Bednarczyk and Alessandro Nivolo

Stanley Phillips (John Cusack) is your average suburban dad.  The manager of a local home store, he goes to work each day and provides for his two children, girls who are 12 and 8.  Since his wife is deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army, Stanley is just trying to keep the family together.

A former Army guy himself, Stanley met Grace in boot camp but received a medical discharge for weak eyesight.  He supports the war and feels somewhat guilty that it’s his wife—not him—who is over there.  So when he receives news that Grace has been killed in action, he is stunned.  He also has no idea how to tell the girls.  He sits them down but then, on a whim, announces that they’re going out to dinner instead.  At the restaurant, he changes his mind again.  Back in the car, he finally persuades the girls to go on a road trip to Florida, to Enchanted Gardens, their favorite amusement park.  Presumably, he will tell them there. 

After a long day and night in the car, they stop at Stanley’s childhood home, where his unemployed younger brother, John (Alessandro Nivolo), is laying around, smoking and generally doing nothing with his life—except criticizing the war.  When someone calls and tells John the truth, he confronts his brother, but Stanley grabs and girls and thrusts them in the car yet again.  During the next few days, Heidi (Shelan O’Keefe), Stanley’s oldest daughter, begins to suspect something.  But Stanley still can’t bring himself to tell them the truth.

Written and directed by James C. Strouse, Grace Is Gone is one of the first films about the war to explore the death of a female soldier.  Another unique element is its focus on the family—not the war—a worthy subject that hundreds of thousands of families of deployed members are sure to appreciate.  Although John baits Stanley about the war, Stanley refuses to engage, so that’s as far as the film goes.  Instead, Strouse focuses on the way Grace’s death affects her husband.

It’s a slow script, and even at 95 minutes, viewers are apt to become impatient.  Dialogue is sparse.  Strouse gives us several winding montages, along with the usual highway shots as he and the girls travel toward Florida.  The cinematography isn’t particularly appealing until the end, either, when we’re finally treated to a lingering shot of a Florida sunset. 

Incongruity is another issue, like the scene where Stanley receives the bad news, first thing in the morning (he’s in bed, but his daughters have inexplicably left the house) and an incorrect military uniform (an older chaplain is wearing the rank of a second lieutenant).  Also, the production values are very basic, and seemingly done on a low budget.  Several scenes are shot in empty stores and even the “amusement park,” which doesn’t look like an amusement park at all, but rather some buildings with a few hastily-printed signs, is completely empty.

What holds the film together is Cusack’s performance and that of newcomer O’Keefe, as Heidi.  Both are superb, and they infuse the narrative with deep, though subtle, emotion.  You relate to Stanley’s pain, and watching his family—especially when his revelation finally comes—is heartbreaking.  Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to save the film.  It’s slow, tedious and offers little in the way of true redemption.  We know Stanley and the girls will heal, but we aren’t given an inkling about how that might happen.

Certainly, it’s not through any act of faith.  Strouse chose to exclude any religious references, except for a somewhat intrusive chaplain and a final church scene.  So ultimately, the film’s message remains obscure.  And that, combined with the minimal production values, leave it feeling wan.

DVD EXTRAS:

  • A Conversation on Grace
  • Theatrical Trailer

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Mild smoking and alcohol use. In one scene an adolescent smokes, but is quickly discovered by her father; he then offers her a cigarette and pretends to choke on one himself, in order to teach her a lesson.
  • Language/Profanity:  Three or four profanities, one strong, but which is immediately rebuked.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  A military wife discusses at sexual encounter with her husband the night before his deployment; another laughs at a sexual allusion that was unintentional.
  • Violence:  Conceptual only (a female solder is killed in Iraq and the news is relayed to her husband).