Playing a character inspired by her mother, Elisabeth Shue is also the model for Gracie‘s titular protagonist (played by Carly Schroeder). As dicey as Shue’s fictional situations may have looked in Leaving Las Vegas or The Saint, here the pressures look dire. Consider the sheer weight of the familial entanglements: the story is jumpstarted by the car-accident death of Gracie’s older brother (much as Shue’s brother died when they were kids), and the movie is directed by Shue’s husband Davis Guggenheim. No wonder she looks tired in every scene.
Aspiring to sports-movie-uplift, Gracie offers up a raft of clichés. Introduced at a moment when her vaunted older brother Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer) is encouraging her to perform a soccer stunt, Gracie is at once shy and spectacular. The other boys gasp at her skill, Johnny praises her, and still, Gracie yearns for similar attention from gruff former soccer-player dad, Bryan (Dermot Mulroney). He spends all his time and energy on Johnny, however, imagining that he’ll take the high school team to a championship. When this doesn’t quite happen, Johnny’s disappointment turns tragic: he gets in a car with his teammates and the cops arrive at the front door late that night, bearing the worst news possible.
The family doesn’t exactly shoulder on. Bryan loses interest in the soccer team, his wife Lindsay (Elisabeth Shue) resents that he’s not attending to their other children, and Gracie ponders how to turn it all around. Her solution — that she’ll go out for Johnny’s spot on the varsity team and bring home the trophy everyone seems to want so badly — is met with predictable derision. It’s only recently post-Title IX 1978 in South Orange NJ, and Gracie’s ambition embarrasses her dad and worries her mom. It intrigues Owen, one of her teachers who also assistant coaches the team, however. (Owen is played by Andrew Shue, who played professional soccer before Melrose Place, and is one of the film’s producers, along with Elisabeth and Guggenheim.) He encourages her from the sidelines and on occasion after class, his sweet-faced openness to such radical thinking contrasted with both Ryan and the boys’ surly head coach (John Doman).
Before she can play for the coach, however, Gracie goes through a series of trials and setbacks, beginning with her dad’s refusal to work with her as he had, daily, with Johnny. “Dad,” she wonders, so plaintively, “Did you ever wish I were a boy?” During his early refusal-to-address-her-desire stage, Gracie finds other, Lifetimey ways to provoke him, dating one of the soccer players, drinking and smoking cigarettes and even coming close to having sex in a car. These awkwardly scenes are outright harebrained, but they do bring dad around: apparently seeing Gracie about to lose her virginity jolts him. Suddenly, soccer seems the better option.
While Lindsay works as a nurse to support the family, Bryan can quit his job and devote himself to coaching Gracie. With mom watching from the kitchen window (she continues to do dishes and laundry on screen), Gracie drills, does sit-ups and pull-ups, falls in the mud and bruises her knees. Still, she’s determined — to make her dad proud and honor her brother’s memory, and eventually, to show up the arrogant newly deemed star player she’s threatening so severely. (She’s advised to go out for field hockey.) The movie is at once treacly, heartfelt, and, in the soccer scenes at least, hard-hitting. Gracie faces down her own daunting sense of loss and desire, her parents’ looming grief, her schoolmates’ small-mindedness, and her best friend’s warning that “people” think she’s a lesbian. And oh yes, her coaches’ and teammates’ dread that she might actually be good.
Lindsay suggests — during the inevitable mother-daughter heart-to-heart — that Gracie persist despite the many odds because Lindsay did not. She wanted to be a doctor, she says, then smiles wanly at her own “settling” for nursedom. Moved t stand up and speak at the local assembly about to judge whether Gracie can try out, Lindsay notes her daughter’s difference from her father and her brothers: Gracie, Lindsay says, is “fierce. She wants to win.” Though the movie does some work to undo that desire, shapeshifting the Shues’ own story to accommodate sports-movie conventions (young Elisabeth did play soccer but did not go out for varsity), Gracie is difficult to dismiss.