out of Five
Running time: 93
Engaging, superbly acted and ultimately heart-breaking drama that hammers home the cost of the Iraq war and marks out debut director Strouse as a talent to watch.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by first-time director James C. Strouse, Grace Is Gone stars John Cusack as Stanley Phillips, a patriotic home supply store manager whose soldier wife, Grace, is killed in Iraq. Barely able to cope with the loss himself, he finds himself unable to break the news to his two daughters, 8-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) and 12-year-old Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe), instead proposing a road trip from Minnesota to Florida, to visit Enchanted Gardens, the girls' favourite theme park.
Cusack is superb in the lead role, completely subsuming his usual likeable persona in order to play a man who's been beaten down by life, denied the military life he'd dreamed of because of his poor eyesight and forced to stay at home while his wife fought overseas.
Similarly, Shelan O'Keefe gives a terrifically natural, mature performance as the older sister, who gradually suspects that something is wrong.
In addition, Alessandro Nivola adds both a welcome dose of humour and a conflicting viewpoint as Stanley's leftie brother. It's also to Strouse's credit that the film manages to convey Stanley's powerful sense of loss without recourse to flashback sequences showing Grace in happier times – in fact, all we see of her is a brief glimpse of a photograph and her voice on the answering machine.
Aside from coaxing terrific performances from Cusack, O'Keefe and Bednarczyk, Strouse includes some fantastic scenes that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema. Highlights include Stanley teaching Heidi how to smoke properly and a lovely sequence where the girls get their ears pierced. Needless to say, the climax of the film is deeply moving and you'd be well advised to pack a tissue or two.
In short, Grace Is Gone is a powerfully emotional drama with a wonderful script, terrific performances from its three leads and an important message about the human impact of the war. Highly recommended.