For the love of family and a game in 'Gracie'
The 16-year-old actress Carly Schroeder has a stare that could burn through stone or the heart of a soccer referee. She's a blond bruiser in an industry that celebrates sylphs and sticks, but for much of "Gracie, " the title character can't throw her weight around the way she knows she was meant to. So Schroeder stares and seethes, until the other characters catch fire.
"Gracie" is an inspirational sports movie, soccer subdivision, and it stops at every expected station of the cross on its road to the triumphant against-all-odds finale (in sudden-death overtime, yet). Yet it also feels appealingly handmade in a way most jock dramas don't. It's a family affair about a family -- produced by and co-starring Elisabeth Shue ("Leaving Las Vegas" ) and her brother Andrew ("Melrose Place" ), directed by her husband Davis Guggenheim (who made the Al Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth") , and based, apparently, on some fairly heavy Shue clan lore.
Gracie Bowen (Schroeder) is the only girl in a family of boys, all soccer freaks under the stern guidance of their father, Bryan (Dermot Mulroney ). Is he a sports nazi? Well, yes. Do they love him for it? Yes, although varsity star oldest brother Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer ) is doing it more for dad than for love of the game.
Johnny dies in an auto accident, though -- his death is so baldly telegraphed that my own 12-year-old soccer player and I looked at each other in the dark and whispered "lunchmeat" -- and a crushed Gracie concocts a plan. She'll take Johnny's place on the field.
The year is 1978, the setting rough-and-tumble northern New Jersey, and the taunts are cruel. Even Gracie's father thinks it's a stupid idea. The most interesting part of "Gracie" is the long midsection in which the heroine is kept from playing and turns incoherent with sullen rebellion, cranking up the Thin Lizzy tunes and smoking cigarettes with dead-end eyes.
Eventually she gets her chance -- thank you Title IX and that nice lady on the school board -- but the grueling training (with dad) and try outs (with a disbelieving coach played by John Doman ) lead to brutish behavior from teammates like Kyle (Christopher Shand ), who can only conceive of Gracie as girlfriend material.
"Gracie," in other words, doesn't make it easy, and that's a change from the rote moves of films like 2005's glossy "Goal! " It's more working-class than "Bend It Like Beckham, " too -- not a feel-good movie but a desperate-to-feel-anything movie, at times nearly hysterical with adolescent yearning. Not for nothing does Bruce Springsteen's "Growing Up " keen repeatedly on the soundtrack.
For all the predictability (and you can set your watch by it), Schroeder roots the film with her glower; there's nothing actressy about her. Mulroney just about makes up for "Georgia Rule ." The more interesting performance, though, may be Elisabeth Shue's . She plays Gracie's mother, Lindsay , a school nurse who's the only non-jock in the bunch and who watches her only daughter move further and further away from her.
Lindsay gets a little speech in the film about this -- about how it's lonely to be a mother to such a family and how that's all right -- and you wonder how much of the actress's own mother is in that speech. According to the press notes, soccer runs in the Shue blood, Elisabeth broke local gender barriers by playing on boys' teams, and there was an older brother who died young. Even the movie's biggest metaphorical groaner, a wild kestrel kept in a cage and finally set free, is based on an actual bird.
To which the critic has to say: So what? Does "Gracie" work as a movie? Just close enough, and closer still for a young soccer player who may already know her sports movie clichés but also recognizes when they touch on something once and truly felt.