Grace Is Gone

Grace Is Gone Grace Is Gone
John Cusack

3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

I like John Cusack. I hate movies with kid actors. Imagine my dilemma when I received "Grace is Gone," a weeper in which Cusack suddenly finds himself the sole parent for his two young daughters. Taking a bullet for Cusack's sake, I tried to take in "Grace Is Gone" with an open mind. And guess what? Director/writer James Strouse tried so hard to make Cusack's Stanley Phillips believable he turned him into a lifeless zombie who's more bound up than a bar of government cheese. Cusack is too good an actor not to have an impact, even when he's starting from a deficit, but it's Shelan O'Keefe (who plays Stanley's oldest coming of age daughter, Heidi) who'll command your interest. Score one for the kid actors.

Stanley Phillips leads a humdrum life. Discharged from the army because of his poor eyesight, he�s a supervisor at the local hardware megastore. He takes his job and his life seriously, huddling with his employees to psyche them up for the workday with a sales chant. At home he�s a strict but loving humorless dad who expects his two daughters, 12 year-old Heidi (O�Keefe) and 8 year-old Dawn (appropriately gregarious Gracie Bednarczyk), to get good grades. Stanley�s one great desire was to serve his country, and with his dream shattered, he�s been sleepwalking thorough life. He loves his family, particularly his wife, Grace, who�s fighting in Iraq, living the life he wanted, but he�s bored at work and is more of a caretaker than a father at home. Stanley yearns for the day when Grace can come home and they can be a family again. Heidi respects her father, but feels she can�t talk to him about her problems. She�s so worried for her mother�s safety she�s developed a sleep disorder and sneaks glimpses at graphic news reports about the war that Stanley has forbidden her to watch. But Dawn�s got her mom issues too. Dawn and her mother have set their watches to a specific minute of the day so they can take a moment to think about each other.

Stanley�s humdrum existence gets a lot more stressful when he opens up the door one morning and finds two grim-faced Army officers on the other side. He knows they�re not going to ask him to sing with the U.S.O., and reacts to the news the same way you or I might � denial, shock, grief, denial. Stanley can�t figure out how to tell his girls their mom isn�t coming home, so in full renunciation, he does the exact opposite of what the regimented, logical Stanley would do � he takes his daughters on a trip to the �Enchanted Gardens� amusement park. It�s a long drive, and proves to be an odyssey of discovery and enlightenment for Stanley and his daughters.

In Stanley, Cusack has taken on a no win role and gives a plausible performance. Because Stanley�s so encumbered emotionally, he�s equally stiff when dealing with his co-workers and family. Cusack shows how unfulfilled Stanley�s life is through his mannerisms, hutching Stanley�s shoulders and giving him a slight, put upon limp. Stanley�s hair is a shaggy, lifeless mop, the frames of his wire rim glasses are out of date, and he dresses in dull khakis and work shirts that scream BORING. He has that dead shark stare that mass murderers get before they wind up on the front page of The Post. It�s a tough task to make a blank sheet of a man likeable to an audience, but Cusack succeeds by portraying Stanley as having a strong sense of duty, a strict sense of morality and an unconditional, undying love for Grace, so much so that while he and his daughters are on the road he still leaves messages on the answering machine for his late wife. Cusack�s biggest hurdle is James Strouse�s prosaic script, and even Cusack�s considerable talents can�t get around the clich�s... Heidi is the serious one (especially when she puts on her scholarly specs)�Dawn is playful, and dad doesn�t know how to talk to his daughters... He argues with his slothful no good liberal hippie brother, James (wounded outlaw Alessandro Nivola)... Of course Stanley and John clash over politics, especially the Iraq War. (Gotta love how John refers to Bush as �Your Monkey Boy President.�)�

The trip to �Enchanted Gardens� is indeed magical because it alters Stanley, but since he�s already essentially a good father and a good person, the only thing the audience has to look forward to is that he�ll become more of a fun dad. If taking you kids on a spur of the moment trip for a few days, doing doughnuts in a parking lot, or teaching your daughter to smoke so she won�t learn it from predatory teenage boys strikes you as radical behavior, then Stanley changes big time.

Shelan O�Keefe�s Heidi fits the young actress like an expensive prom dress. O�Keefe can act, and one hopes that unlike so many child actors before her she�ll still be making films when she�s an adult. She�s the serious sister, the one who�s so worried about her book report she calls her teacher for an extension. She also catches on quickly that there�s more to Stanley�s decision to go to Enchanted Gardens than a sudden desire to bond with his kids. O�Keefe can register suspicion, disbelief and happiness on her face without mugging, which child actors often do.

Gracie Benardczyk plays cuddly, outgoing Dawn, a/k/a �Bear,� the family comedian. She bounces on hotel beds, teases her sister, and spontaneously breaks into silly songs and dances. Where Gracie excels is in scenes where her mother�s absence catches up with her. Watch her in the scene in the department store where she goes from being ecstatic over her new clothes to despondent when she sees a young boy shopping with his mom; few young actresses could make the joy drain from their faces as effectively. (Pamelyn Ferdin and Jodi Foster come to mind, but I always believed they were midgets masquerading as kids!). Gracie also dredges up the old �Are we there yet? (No) ...Are we there yet? (NO!)� routine, and she�s good enough at it you won�t entertain thoughts of child abuse. I�m happy to report that Bernardczyk is so effective in her role that at no time was I tempted to utter the phrase, �Say goodnight, Gracie.�

One lingering question that�s never asked or answered� If Stan�s gallivanting cross-country with his girls, who�s taking care of the funeral arrangements? Maybe one of the many unseen relatives. (Grandma for example is mentioned but never seen, and John finds out about Grace�s demise from another unseen relative via Ma Bell.)


More Grace�The Extras

�Grace Is Gone� is goosed by a trio of atypical extras, �A Conversation on Grace,� �The Inspiration for Grace Is Gone (Life After Loss),� and �T.A.P.S. Support Network.� The latter two features come from the Pentagon Channel and are introduced by bullet-headed Marine Sgt, Brian Buckhalter, who�s definitely taken a healthy swig of whatever Kool Aid the Monkey Boy President has been handing out. �Life After Loss� profiles former Army officer Warren Pellegrin and his four children. His Navy enlistee wife, Corrine, died at age 39 in 2000 after contracting a rare virus. Pellegrin vividly recalls Corrine�s passing: �I held her hand while we were dating, while we were married and now in death.� The feature follows Pellegrin�s struggle to deal with his wife�s death, how he�s adjusted to being a single parent, and his advice to John Cusack, who called to tell him he was portraying a character based on his life in the movie.

A look at T.A.P.S. (Tragedy Assistance for Survivors) highlights the work of Ami Neighberger-Miller, whose brother was killed in Iraq in 2007. The bulk of the extra footage and the most entertaining segment is �A Conversation With Grace� with the stars and writer/director James Strouse making nice for the camera. In summing up why he took on the role of Stanley Phillips, Cusack says: �It was a beautifully written story about grief and loss and families. It was also the story of Heidi becoming a woman too fast.� The feature affords the viewer the opportunity to see how cuddly Grace Benardczyk is and how surprisingly grown up Shelan O�Keefe acts.

Grace�s subject matter may be a bit daunting for kids Dawn�s age. No child that young will want to see a fellow eight year-old fretting over their mother and worse, grieving over her loss. The climatic scene that brings Stanley, Heidi and Dawn closer together will choke you up, and at 82 minutes, �Grace Is Gone,� won�t burn up your Saturday night schedule. Despite the ponderous plot (it takes the Phillips trio the better part of three days to get to the amusement park and sometimes you�ll feel ever inch), �Grace� features a superlative performance by Shelan O�Keefe and is a good excuse for parents to get together with their tweens to discuss the serious facts of life, love, and death. And if �Grace� can open up the lines of communication between parents and their kids, I�m all for it.



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