Waiting to tell daughters the news
There are two earnest, deeply affecting stories in "Grace Is Gone," and the one that sticks isn't the one that stars John Cusack. It's the one that costars Cusack.
Which isn't to say that the actor fails in the role of Stanley Phillips, a repressed Indiana retail manager whose wife, we learn in the film's opening scenes, has been killed serving in Iraq. Cusack goes in-country as honorably as he can, donning aviator glasses, slouching out a paunch, letting his eyes narrow with thoughts he can't express even to himself. The problem is that he's an immensely charismatic actor playing a man with no charisma at all. The strain of sitting on his natural exuberance shows.
Some audiences have found Cusack's performance brave and true. Others think it as mawkish and manipulative as the film's title. Personally speaking, I was deeply touched without being quite convinced, mostly because Stanley's interactions with his older daughter, played by an incandescent newcomer named Shélan O'Keefe, have the honest, inarticulate emotion the rest of the film reaches for.
The gimmick of "Grace Is Gone" - and it is a gimmick - is that Stanley can't bring himself to tell his girls, 12-year-old Heidi (O'Keefe) and 9-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk), that their mother is dead. To do so would open the entire can of worms: His guilt that his wife is serving rather than he, his belief that this war is righteous and good.
Instead, Stanley whisks the girls out of school and into the minivan, chattering with nervous high spirits as they head for the family's favorite Florida amusement park. The young and uncomplicated Dawn is delighted with the unexpected vacation. Heidi, the wise elder kid, senses something's up.
It's that old indie standby the road movie, this time pregnant with resentments and unbearable sadness. "Little Miss Mudslide," in other words, with a muted (and quite lovely) score by Clint Eastwood rather than a clutch of playlist-ready alterna-hits. Why would you watch such a thing? Partly because writer-director James C. Strouse treats the material honestly even at its most calculated, and mostly because the relationship between Stanley and his oldest daughter has the hard, observant ring of truth.
This is O'Keefe's first film, and her performance has its self-conscious moments, but I think she'll be around for a while. Heidi is one of those quiet, absorptive kids who rebel by learning as much as they can, on the sly if necessary. We first see her watching CNN for news of the war, switching it off hastily when Stanley comes home from work. (He doesn't want her to know. Actually, he doesn't want her to think.)
Watchful and worried behind middle-school-hip glasses - we learn during the film that she's an insomniac - Heidi's engaged in the adolescent process of creating herself, but she's cautious about it. She's a good girl trying to evaluate what being a real girl means. Each step is heartbreaking in its clarity, like the cigarette offered and taken from a teenage bad boy she meets in a motel.
Her father's response to that is priceless, and as "Grace Is Gone" rolls on, Cusack lets a younger Stanley emerge, one who might have been a little wild - one who might have looked a little like John Cusack. The film's political subtext is more banal than its human story line, and the section where the family visits with Stanley's (unseen) parents and black-sheep brother (Alessandro Nivola) veers between the affecting and the predictable. It's the brother who states the antiwar stance that's the movie's not-so-hidden agenda; refreshingly, the character's a fatuous hippie prat even if he is right.
This is Strouse's directorial debut; he wrote the tart 2005 Steve Buscemi comedy "Lonesome Jim" and reportedly took over "Grace" after Rob Reiner dropped out during pre-production. (I think we can be thankful for that; a Reiner version, with its feel-good yuks, might have come off like a Happy Meal in a morgue. See "The Bucket List" for confirmation.) This is a first film, all right, with raw spots and a tentative tone that both hobbles the film and becomes it. The filmmaker's feeling his way as much as Stanley and Heidi are - as much, it's implied, as we all are in post-9/11 America.
"Grace Is Gone" does confirm the promise of "Lonesome Jim" in one respect: What interests Strouse isn't so much what happens within people as between them. That's why Stanley can only unburden himself, in the film's saddest sequence, to his wife's voice on their home answering machine. That's why the achingly fine scenes between father and daughter hook up to the larger theme. To admit the truth to yourself, you sometimes have to tell your children first.