Where has Gregory Peck gone? Yeah, smartass, I know he’s dead, too, but his type seems to have been forgotten, at least by screenwriter and first-time director James C. Strouse, whose film Grace Is Gone is meant to be a moving, mostly nonpartisan piece on the lives of people connected to the Iraq war. The film follows John Cusack as Stanley Philips, a man who has just learned that his wife, conveniently named Grace, has died while serving in Iraq and needs to find a way to break it to his daughters. (OK, OK, so we were talking To Kill a Mockingbird Gregory Peck, and not Roman Holiday Gregory Peck.)
We first meet Phillips at a meeting of a suburban support group for military wives with husbands in Iraq, and can tell immediately that he is our protagonist because he stands out quite easily as the only man in the room. This film deserves credit for the idea of getting Cusack on board as the star; because he is an actor whose more famous roles position him as handsome, well worth the ogling, the viewer has to blink before recognizing him in his role as Phillips—a slightly overweight, middle-aged, bespectacled, blending-in, fatherly type. This is clever, as it pushes the viewer to drop a few prior preconceptions.
It is likely that this shuffling of expectations is also supposed to rearrange the viewer’s sympathies, as the war in which Stanley soon learns his wife has died is one plagued by its low domestic approval. Strouse and his crew want us to feel sympathy for Stanley and his two daughters, Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk), 8, and Heidi (Shélan O’Keefe), 12, no matter where our political inclinations lie. To the extent that the movie succeeds, we do—death, after all, tends to be a sad event. But in order to tap this sympathy, Strouse needs to present his audience with a realistic film, and his ability to do that varies from scene to scene. Strouse’s film is driven by its characters’ emotional reactions to the situation they find themselves in after Grace’s death, and emotions are far more difficult to portray accurately on film than, say, the complicated plot of a turn-twisting thriller.
Occasionally, Strouse succeeds in finding activities for his characters that symbolize their interior emotions, saving us from even more close-ups of their faces while we ponder what subtleties these emotions might contain. When Stanley learns from the military officers who come knocking at the door that Grace has died, he is distraught and can’t think of how to tell his kids that their mother isn’t coming home from Iraq. The only reaction he has is to run away, and so the whole family does, moving from one distraction to the next. This is one very long Midwestern car trip—from a family restaurant with an arcade, to Grandma’s house, to the discount store, to a kiddie amusement park called the Enchanted Castle. He drives wildly and occasionally gets lost on the highway; surely this means something profound about his mental state.
More touching is Stanley’s need to stay in touch with Grace. We see him in scene after scene calling home from the road, leaving messages on the family’s answering machine. This is not such a bad method, although it does leave the viewer with plenty of nearly identical images of a ringing phone and an adjacent message pad. He gets to hear Grace’s voice apologizing for not being home and prompting him to leave a message after the beep. He gets to tell her about the grief and desperation he feels, and we get to hear some interior monologue. Not a bad trope, but it has potential to reveal more character depth than it is used to do.
Heidi is the most interesting character in this movie. Her reactions are the easiest to relate to, and her acting outperforms that of the other characters. We learn that she can’t sleep at night out of worry about her mom, and so she wanders around outside. She’s the sort of kid who worries when family vacations coincide with school days, and takes it upon herself to call the office to apologize and ask for homework to be sent along for her and her sister. As the older of the two daughters, she has more complex emotions for the film to explore and is more likable as a character because she is far less annoying.
The film could easily be improved if it had eliminated her sister Dawn from the script, but Heidi’s age does pose some complications. She is only 12, still cute in the way that a puppy is, not in the way that a babe is. But the camera can’t quite discern this, and doesn’t know whether to treat her as a sex object. In some ways, we sympathize with her the most, because she is the character who takes most responsibility for her own actions, but it can be hard to sympathize with someone filmed to snag this very sympathy using inconsistent approaches. Maybe that’s what adolescence is, though: far from Lolita, but approaching Heidi, caught. Caught, like this film, between its aspirations and something a bit above mediocrity. Just a bit.