(Since Grace is Gone is now screening in limited release, we're re-publishing James' review from the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.)
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
(It is sweet and decorous to die for one's country.)
Sure, but try explaining that to someone who's lost a loved one in war; it may be sweet and decorous to die for one's country, but how is that consolation to the people left behind? How do you explain that kind of loss to yourself? How do you explain that kind of loss to children? And moving from the abstract to the concrete, as Stanley Phillips (John Cusack) has to ask himself, how can he explain to his daughters Heidi (Shélan O'Keefe) and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) that their mom -- wife, mother, friend, U.S. Army staff sergeant -- isn't coming back to them because she's died in Iraq?
Well, for Stanley, the answer to that is simple: You don't. At least not right away. You stall for a few minutes. And then you stall for an hour. And then you stall a little more and ask the kids what they'd like to do while driving around Minnesota's chain restaurants and strip malls, trying desperately to think of how to tell them. And when Dawn says she wants to go to Enchanted Gardens -- a Florida fun park -- Stanley puts the family on the highway and heads South, because doing something stupid is invariably easier than doing something right.
From the second we see Stanley -- as literally the odd man out at a support group for military spouses -- Cusack is onscreen in a way we've never seen him before. He's graying, doughy, walking with a lumbering gait. It's a different kind of role -- no more Lloyd Dobler -- and he keeps defying our expectations throughout the film. Stanley's having a slow-motion breakdown, and we are -- literally -- along for the ride as he takes Dawn and Heidi to Florida.
And Dawn and Heidi -- or, rather, O'Keefe and Bednarcyzk -- are actually two of the best things about Grace is Gone. It's rare to find children on-screen written as children -- real and three-dimensional and true, wise and yet unknowing, sincere and jumpy and immature and engaged. Stanley isn't the best dad -- and, more importantly, he knows that, and Cusack makes that tender, haunted insecurity live in Stanley's very moment. Stanley's enjoined his daughters from watching the evening news, but finds Heidi riveted to the nightly broadcasts; Dawn's set a watch to beep in sync with her mother's, so they'll both be thinking of each other at the same time each day. Heidi and Dawn also interact like siblings -- and so do Stanley and his slacker, anti-war brother John (Allesandro Nivola), clashing and connecting in the wake of what's happened.
Crouse also manages a rare thing -- namely, demonstrating that a film that's shot swiftly and low-to-the-ground can possess an aesthetic other than just the look of economy. There's a certain play of light in Grace is Gone, and carefully composed moments as well as a swiftly-captured realism that still looks wonderful. Grace is Gone has the look of life, and the glow of art. The film is as affecting -- and as ultimately human -- as one might hope, and it still brings home the ugly real fact that for too many Americans, the evening news isn't just background noise.