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in Filmmaking
on Jan 21, 2007

Anne Thompson at her Risky Business blog is reporting that the Weinstein Company has bought James Strouse’s Grace is Gone here at Sundance, beating out Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics. The price was not announced, but it’s rumored to be around $4 million. I’ll write more in detail about the film, which I saw at last night’s press screening, later, but here’s my quick take.

In general, I found Richard Corliss’s Time mag broadside, “Sundance Movies are Bad for You,” unsupported and churlish, but if there’s one film that some of his criticisms might apply to, it’s this one. The film is made with obvious sincerity, it’s well acted (particularly by Shélan O’Keefe, who plays the older daughter)… but it’s full of so many familiar indie-film narrative tropes and plot devices that it was unable to convey anything to me that felt real about the experience of an American family losing a loved one in Iraq.

The film’s exploration of its themes is constrained by a poetic and minimalist filmmaking approach which elides any meaningful commentary about the current American political debate. It also has a too-clean, artificial-feeling HD look, making it a road movie without the texture (and extras) of the American road. (And it didn’t help my viewing that the story, in which Cusack takes his daughters to an amusement park instead of telling them that their mother has died, kept reminding me of Chevy Chase and family on their way to Wally World. I suppose there’s a metaphor at work here, something about our culture’s flight to distraction amidst political conflict, but it didn’t feel to me that the film was actively acknowledging it.)

Writing elsewhere on this site, James Ponsoldt says that Grace is Gone is not a war film, it’s a film about family and grief, and I’d agree with that. (Structurally, the film reminded me a bit of an older Sundance title, Love, Liza.) The film is ultimately about a man processing grief and figuring out how to support his two daughters at a moment in which all their lives are changed forever. My problem with Grace is Gone is that once it uses the Iraq war to set the plot in motion, define character (Cusack’s protagonist is an unblinking pro-war Red Stater), and give itself an air of import, it pretty much abandons any kind of political discussion and resolves itself on the simplest and least surprising terms. These final minutes can’t help but be terribly moving, and I’ve talked to several people who were honestly affected by it — indeed, there was applause at the press screening I attended. But the film had too many political references — including a tv clip of a Donald Rumsfeld speech near the end — for me to be satisfied with its succession of tiny, sometimes beautiful poetic moments and slender resolution.

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