Gracie

| June 5, 2007

Gracie is a labor of love for the Shue family. Co-starring and co-produced by siblings Elisabeth and Andrew Shue (who also helped pen the story), and directed by Elisabeth Shue’s husband, Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), the movie relates the sexism Elisabeth encountered when she tried to play varsity soccer in the 1970s. Because this is Hollywood, the movie’s ending will not surprise, and yet, the film generates honest emotion through the capable performances of its stars and the creative team’s contagious passion for the sport of soccer.
The movie is set in the 1978 and features the music and shaggy hair of the period. Feminism as a political or social reality is largely absent, though, apart from the fact that the school board president ends up being a woman sympathetic to Gracie’s cause. Gracie’s marginalization is so ingrained that her younger brothers openly mock her at the dinner table. Shue’s mother character states the female dilemma best when she shares with her daughter wisdom from her own mother: “for women, life is a shit sandwich and sometimes you have to take a bite.” While this sort of unquestioned sexism seems shocking some someone who grew up with the confidence that I could achieve anything, the reminder that only thirty years ago girls had to fight to play with the boys is instructive…no wait, girls still have to fight to play with the boys. This why the media reports every time a girl wants to play football. Girls aren’t as (fill in the blank with a word describing physical prowess) as boys, or haven’t you heard?
Title character Gracie (Carly Schroeder) wants to help the varsity team beat their chief rival in honor of her soccer star brother, who dies in a car accident at the beginning of the film. Facing repeated setbacks, including the discouragement of her father (Dermot Mulroney), Gracie stops studying and otherwise acts out to get her dad’s attention. Her father, however, is not only numb from despair but also is ill-equipped to relate to a daughter. Grief works throughout this film as a subtle undercurrent, appearing in moving moments like when Gracie’s mother (Elisabeth Shue) speaks up for her daughter at a school board meeting and also in shocking moments like then the youngest children fight over who will claim their dead brother’s room. Gracie becomes more than a typical sport achievement film by examining how a family rebuilds itself after losing a member.
That said, the sports stuff is pretty good. Missing here is the usual musical-montage sequence during which the star pumps iron, runs through the rain, and magically transforms into a soccer star overnight. Instead, the screenplay by Lisa Marie Petersen and Karen Janszen focuses much of the film upon how hard Gracie has to work to achieve her goal. She doesn’t have what it takes from the get-go, so she suffers brutal workouts and more brutal opposition from male soccer players along the way.
Schroeder rises to the challenge as Gracie Bowen, demonstrating impressive versatility. Her athleticism is believable (can’t imagine someone like Mischa Barton playing this role), yet Schroeder also maintains her feminine sensibility amidst the toughening up. As soccer-obsessed dad Bryan Bowne, Mulroney doubts the abilities of his daughter, but he never comes off as mean. His journey from skeptic to true believer generates the movie’s moving conflict. His few scenes with Elisabeth Shue left me wanting for more. Indeed, Shue mostly hides in the background, and I regret that the story didn’t demand more of her nuanced portrayal of an outsider in her own home.
Of course, the film hits the usual sports movie notes: the big game, the big goal, and the requisite achievement. There’s also a jerky guy, a sensitive male friend, and even a symbolic pet bird. Yet despite the clichés, Gracie is an entertaining and heartwarming film about how hard work and perseverance can pay off, even for a girl in a man’s world.

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