Something about Grace Is Gone caught my eye a few months before its release. I guess it was before it became apparent that most of these Iraq movies were going to be critical and box office bombs. I’m also something of a sucker for a well-made tearjerker, plus John Cusack is all-around pretty terrific. Alas, Grace went nowhere during the Oscar season despite buzz for Cusack. It made it to a grand total of 7 theaters in December for just two weekends before disappearing (it then reappeared for two weekends in late January). But even after it bombed it continued to haunt me. Our local arthouse had its poster up well into the spring. It became a recurring theme at Golden Grouches screenings to laugh at how often we’d see the trailer long after it exited theaters.

Finally, finally I was able to see it once it came out on DVD and get that monkey off my back. It’s not superb, but it is better than many of the other War on Terror films that came out in late 2007 like In the Valley of Elah and Rendition. It keeps the story narrowly focused on Cusack’s Stanley Phillips, a man who loses his soldier wife in Iraq. There are no flashbacks, mysteries, or battle sequences- just a solid dose of understated anguish. Faced with telling his two daughters of their mother’s death, he cracks and instead takes them on an impromptu road trip to a Disney World-style resort in Florida.

Yes the tears flowed a little throughout, but there’s a line between earned emotion and manipulation and Grace Is Gone likes to meander back and forth across the line. Some of the execution comes off clumsy with some of the characterizations, particularly Stanley’s, coming off too broadly-drawn. He’s a little too simplistically pro-war in a way that suggests to me that writer/director James Strouse doesn’t quite understand the personal nuances of this type of middle American. Stanley is conveniently balanced with a liberal brother that comes off more as a plot tool than a real person. When the two have a confrontation over Stanley avoiding the truth, the brother makes the point that the girls are going to remember this forever and hate him for it. It’s a superb point, but the execution feels significantly off. (Another thing that always made me painfully aware I was watching a movie: the family’s car doesn’t have headrests. It was just obvious enough to always bother me. Just an example of a touch that pulled me out of the realism.)

The real strength of the film, and it’s a considerable strength, is the relationship between Stanley and his eldest daughter, Heidi, played by Paul Dano’s eerie female doppelganger, Shélan O’Keefe. Heidi’s 12, already at an awkward age, and growing up a little too quickly with her mother away. She and her dad regard each other with mutual confusion but also love and respect. Much of the film involves her coming to an understanding that something dreadful has happened but avoiding trying to actually find out what.

Eventually the family makes it to its amusement park, which, by the way, is the LAMEST amusement park ever. It’s like a cross between a Six Flags and a botanical gardens. The thing even has a museum about evolution in it. I can’t believe they drove to Florida for THAT. They even see the whole thing and leave before sunset. But on the way back, something clicks in Stanley and he pulls off onto a beach to finally break the news to his daughters. The dialogue fades to music, followed by a short eulogy. The ending works very well and avoids the clumsiness of other parts of the movie. It’s just loss, family, and love without politics or plot devices and the emotion is well-earned. I’ll admit the whole sequence killed me.

Clint Eastwood wrote the score, which made me think the Academy would still find a way to nominate him for something. But the music suffers from the increasingly irritating indie cliche of Twangy Guitar Music. Can’t afford real music? Have someone pluck a guitar for a while and pretend it imparts mood. I did enjoy the Best Song-eligible, Eastwood-penned Jamie Cullum title song. I don’t particularly care about Cusack’s exclusion and I look forward to more from O’Keefe.

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