Grace Is Gone ****
Directed by James C. Strouse
Written by James C. Strouse
John Cusack as Stanley Philipps
Shélan O'Keefe as Heidi Phillips
Gracie Bednarczyk as Dawn Phillips
Alessandro Nivola as John Phillips
85 Minutes(Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief strong language and teen smoking. )
In one of the most simple, yet completely heartbreaking and beautiful films of the year, "Grace Is Gone" manages to pack an enormous emotional punch. John Cusack gives a performance that is my personal choice for Best Actor of the year, but it really does pain me to think that it'll end up being as overlooked as Michael Douglas in the little gem "King of California." What also makes "Grace Is Gone" powerful is that it is a human drama with politics involved-and a message about war that could go either way depending on how the audience feels about it. This makes it stand out in a fall movie season filled with political agendas, since the other efforts like "Rendition," "Lion for Lambs," "Redacted," and even the indie "Badland" seem to really throw the anti-war morales right in your face.
Cusack plays Stanley Philipps, a quiet soft-spoken almost blind father, whose wife Grace is away in Iraq. Stanley would have loved to be the one to go overseas, but he was caught lying to the military about his vision and he was forced to leave. Instead he runs a department store that sells Home Goods, and the most gusto he can bring out is every morning when he tries to get his workers excited for the upcoming day. Stanley is detached from his kids, and doesn't even want the television news to be on at any time. Everything changes when he gets the dreaded visit from two generals who tell him that his wife was killed in an accident. Stanley can't bring himself to telling his children, and instead takes them on a road trip to Enchanted Gardens, an amusement park in Florida (I guess they couldn't get the rights to the name Disney Land.) The road is bumpy and filled with various hotels and little incidents-and yet Stanley manages to get closer to his children in ways that he was never able to before, as he tries to approach the moment he dreads more than anything.
Cusack is quite amazing here in every single moment on screen. We're so used to seeing Cusack as this quick, smart, and constantly innocent bachlor, and here there is so much going on even when he is doing nothing at all. Take a scene where Cusack brings his two daughters to a shopping mall. His oldest daughter, Heidi-a young girl wise beyond her years (which is twelve or something like that) clothes shopping. She puts on a dress that makes her look much older beyond her years, and the face that Cusack makes mixes fear of the unknown, happiness that his daughter his happy, sadness because of what is to come, and the look of a man who is literally watching his little girl grow up right before his eyes. The performances of the two daughters-Shélan O'Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk-is extremely natural, complete with the awkward and useless fights. The naturalness of this movie strongly rivials the naturalness that Noah Baumbach was trying to accomplish with his awful "Margot at the Wedding" in that writer/director James C Strouse actually seems to care for these characters and their situation. He directs with a simplistic vision-often focusing on the characters for a while at a time. For example, when Cusack is given the news about his wife, we focus on a close-up on his face for at least a minute and a half, giving time for us to accept the news as well as watch our character accept the news-or at least try.
What also works is Clint Eastwood's score, which often comes in during some driving scenes/montage scenes-I've always said that Eastwood does the same score every time he composes music, and yet it really does work here-his simple, yet heartbreaking and beautiful music, inhabits this world almost as much as these characters. The political agenda in this film is both anti-war and pro-war. Strouse doesn't use Cusack's mild-mannered nature against him to make fun of those who are pro-war, just like he doesn't use his anti-war brother's pot-smoking and deadbeat nature to make a statement. We let the characters debate amongst themselves, and we, the viewer, gets to decide. There is no message being jammed down our throats, the downfall of many of these poltiical films out there are the moment. "Grace Is Gone" is simple, extremely effective, and its one of my favorite movies of the year.