Gracie (United States, 2007)
Gracie is a by-the-numbers sports drama about a young girl who defies the odds to succeed in an all-male arena. It's the kind of thing that might make for a compelling after school special, but is hardly what one expects to spend $10 for at a multiplex. The film hits all the expected high notes of melodrama, does plenty of preaching from the pulpit, and comes to a rather abrupt conclusion (immediately after the expected moment of redemption/triumph). Yet for all its faults, Gracie is made with enough grace to get us rooting for the protagonist. This is due more to the heartfelt performance of actress Carly Schroeder than it is the less-than-inspired inspirational screenplay by Lisa Marie Petersen and Karen Janszen.
Supposedly based on events from the life of Elisabeth Shue (keep in mind how Hollywood usually twists these based-on-real-life tales), Gracie takes us to South Orange, New Jersey in 1978. The sense of time and place aren't strong, but that's not a big deal. Gracie (Carly Schoeder) is the younger sister of high school soccer star Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer), the pride and joy of his dad, Bryan (Dermot Mulroney). Johnny and Gracie share a special bond that is severed one tragic night when he is killed in car crash. His death devastates the entire family, but Bryan and Gracie are the most deeply impacted. Gracie decides that to honor Johnny's memory, she will try out for the all-boys soccer team, but she faces obstacles on all sides. Her mother, Lindsay (Elisabeth Shue) doesn't want her to get hurt. Bryan is unwilling to coach her. The school believes she has no right to infringe upon an all-boys sport. And, on top of everything, she's not particularly good.
Like most sports stories, this is all about the underdog fighting for her dream and proving herself. The first half is better than the second. For a while, as we get to know Gracie and understand what motivates her, there's a sense of discovery. Unfortunately, the movie eventually falls in line with the formula and it becomes easy to predict not only where the story will end up, but all the intermediate rest-stops where it will pause on the way to the final destination. Gracie offers all the requisite big emotional moments, yet none are as rousing as they should be. Too often, things that occur in this film feel obligatory or are pushed across with little subtlety, such as the anti-discrimination message.
Things were a little different in 1978, especially when it came to high school athletics. Girls were expected to play girls' sports and boys were expected to play boys' sports, and never the twain should meet. While Gracie's story might not be true, there were girls in the late '70s and early '80s who challenged the status quo, resulting in extracurricular circumstances developing the diversity they exhibit today. One has to wonder, however, whether this story is sufficiently interesting for today's audiences, especially considering its fictional nature.
Carly Schroeder, hitherto known primarily for a recurring role on TV's Lizzie McGuire (she was also in Mean Creek, where she first caught my attention), shows that, given the spotlight, she possesses the intensity to hold it. She invests Gracie with heart, beauty, and determination. Schroeder took this role seriously, training to make the experience real for the character, and it works. No one threatens to steal scenes from Schroeder. Dermot Mulroney and Elisabeth Shue, as Gracie's parents, give low-key performances. Christopher Shand, as the over-the-top and oily Kyle, belongs in the category of actors who don't understand that sometimes menace can be better conveyed through restraint.
Gracie is painless enough and, at times, even enjoyable. But it suffers from an overriding feeling that this would be better positioned as a made-for-TV feature. Director Davis Guggenheim (Shue's husband) is riding high in the wake of standing behind the cameras to film Al Gore for An Inconvenient Truth. Gracie is an odd follow-up; there's nothing distinctive or distinguishing about the material. It's what one might reasonably expect from someone trying to break into Hollywood. Guggenheim isn't a filmmaker-for-hire on this project. This is a story he wants to tell. Sadly, it's not told well enough to make it worth a trip to a multiplex. Schroeder scores; the movie doesn't.
Gracie (United States, 2007)
Cast: Carly Schroeder, Dermot Mulroney, Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Shand, John Doman, Jesse Lee Soffer
Screenplay: Lisa Marie Petersen and Karen Janszen
Cinematography: Chris Manley
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Picturehouse