I try to pride myself on never being a fool for formula, for maintaining my critical composure and integrity at all times, and never falling victim to tired Hollywood clichés. However, there are two rather noticeable chinks in my otherwise steely, aloof armor, two instances where I am made a sucker each and every time, without fail. First, and the one for which, above all, I’m not at all ashamed, are talking pig pictures. Whether we are talking about masterworks like Babe, or lesser also-rans like Gordy, there’s just something about those chatty little porkers that gets me every time. I think it’s all to do with their infectiously optimistic can-do attitudes, their willingness to tackle any difficulties head-on, despite the odds, combined, of course, with a sickening amount of adorableness. Awwwww….
But this whole “can-do/ odds-overcoming” angle dovetails nicely into my second non-guilty guilty cinematic pleasure, the underdog sports film (which may be redundant). Are there actually any movies about players or teams that are just totally dominant, running roughshod over all opponents?). Following tropes so well worn and predictable that they almost transcend formula, these are films that seem to write themselves, to follow the same basic manipulative template each and every time, the undersized, overlooked outsider, with no chance in hell to make it, given that once in a life time shot, struggles through trials and adversity, fails but picks him/herself up, ultimately finds redemption in the closing seconds of the Big Game. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
But there’s a reason you see it done over and over again, this same movie told a thousand times; when it works, and it almost always does, it’s a slam dunk. The audience plays right into the film’s hands, breaking into rousing swelling cheers each and every time. Deride the formula with cynicism all you want, it’s one of the few sure things in entertainment, a total gimme, and only the most cold hearted would deny its supremely satisfying affect.
So yes, Gracie, a modest, likable little soccer movie that came and went quickly and quietly in theaters this past spring, plays to just about every sports movie cliché in the book. Its spunky and determined young heroine, Gracie Bowen (a winningly earnest Carly Schroeder), raised in a soccer obsessed family of boys, wants to play high school soccer, partly because of love of the game, and partly to honor the memory of her soccer star brother, who dies suddenly at the outset of the film. This being 1978, just on the cusp of Title IX (the enforcement of which stipulated that girls must be given the same athletic opportunities as boys in public schools), there is no girl’s team, so Gracie of course wants to try out for boy’s varsity.
After being laughed, mocked and scoffed at by the head coach, the boys on the team, and her friends, Gracie buckles down, trains with her father (an emotionally constipated and brooding Dermot Mulroney), and successfully petitions the school board to be allowed to at least try out. She makes the most of her chance, finding small victories and major setbacks along the way, eventually making it to the varsity squad, and in the end finds herself on the spot in the critical moment of the Big Game. What do YOU think happens?
So sure, it bounces along its predictable, well-worn way, but the difference, what makes Gracie notable, if not exactly memorable, is to be found in the details. See, though there’s no mention of it at the beginning of the film (there’s no “based on true events” tagline), the film is loosely based on the shared memories and experiences of Elisabeth and Andrew Shue, both of whom grew up playing soccer, and both of whom did indeed lose their brother unexpectedly (and both of whom have roles in the film). Though the extent to which the film mirrors actual events is actually quite minimal (as we find out in the commentary tracks), nevertheless this “lived through” feel to the movie gives it a gritty, hard won authenticity.
Shot on location in the suburban New Jersey town where the Shues grew up, and in the high school they attended, and interspersed with actual home movies from the Shue family, Gracie maintains the patina of being of a real time and place, of being drawn from someone’s life. This in turn gives it a core of emotional honesty, which buoys it above the clichés that would try to sink the film. There’s a winsome undertow to it all, a sense of real melancholy and loss that transcends any piddling loss in a soccer game, that actually complements the trials of our heroine, rather than dousing her, or our, enthusiasm. The film is true in spirit, if not necessarily in fact, and that might make it all the more resonant and genuine in the end.
The problem, then, is that Gracie might actually go too far in wanting to be more than just the sum of its parts, the total of its clichés. At times it actually feels like it might be three or four movies trying to pile together into one, never sure of its real identity. There’s the main, overarching coming of age underdog sports story, of course. But Gracie also tries to be a testament to the nascent feminist spirit of the ’70s, a meditation on loss and healing, as well as a portrait of a tempestuous father/daughter relationship.
Director Davis Guggenheim (who also worked on the script with the Shues, and is married to Elisabeth) does an able job of maintaining a consistent wistful tone throughout which keeps the film from flying apart and off the rails into melodrama, but Gracie’s ambition may be too much for its modest little story, and short run time, in the end.
As it ramped up towards its inevitable conclusion, I found myself rooting more for Gracie the film than Gracie the character, just hoping beyond hope that this otherwise likable and heartfelt film wouldn’t flame out and fall flat in a disastrous and mawkish conclusion. And though predictable, Gracie’s finale, succinct and not overly histrionic, feels well-earned, one of those small victories that makes life and all its loss and pain bearable.
Having seen Gracie in theaters without knowing too much about its back-story, I was actually quite looking forward to Andrew and Elisabeth Shues commentary track on the DVD release. And though they do clarify many of the details and differences between the film and their own lives, their brother did indeed die, but not until he was almost 30; Elisabeth actually did play a little bit of soccer in high school, but never for the boys varsity team. We never really hear about the central reason why they felt the pressing need to make this film, to tell their own story. Catharsis? Healing? Tribute? I’m sure these, and other reasons, factored in and don’t need to be said. Perhaps they are comfortable with letting the film speak for itself, but since the family aspect seems so important to them, and to the genesis of the film, a little more soul searching would have been nice, or at least complementary. Director Davis Guggenheim’s separate track doesn’t much alleviate this since it’s mostly anecdotes and trivia.
Better is the 30-minute “making of” feature, which goes into detail about the difficulty of finding a lead actress with genuine athletic, soccer talent (Carly Schroeder, while a soccer neophyte, trained like a demon, to such an extent that an “athletic double” was rarely used), as well as the strategies for filming soccer, which, due to the fluid continuous nature of the game, is notoriously difficult to film in a way that a lay audience can understand. But the soccer matches which bookend the film are crisply and clearly shot, well choreographed, and are viscerally exciting even to someone like myself, who has little to no understanding of the game other than how ridiculously difficult it is to score a goal.