Gracie (2007): Family Melodrama, Based on Elizabeth Shue’s Childhood Struggles To Play Soccer withe the Boys

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Though based on costar Elisabeth Shue own childhood struggles to play soccer in boys-only leagues, Gracie so resolutely adheres to the conventions of inspirational sports films that any specificity of the actual events has been removed.

With a middling performance by the young actress Carly Schroeder, this family drama is inoffensive, but its attempts at rousing sports action and female empowerment sail wide of the goal.

Its New Jersey circa 1978, and the Bowen family is cheering on son Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer), the clans star soccer player. Johnny misses a critical penalty shot, which costs his team the game, but a greater tragedy occurs later that evening when Johnny dies in a car crash on the way home. Though the Bowens are all devastated, the death most affects soccer-obsessed dad Bryan (Dermot Mulroney), silent but loving mom Lindsay (Elizabeth Shue), and good-girl Grace (Carly Schroeder), the familys only daughter.

Like the rest of her family, Grace idolized and looked up to Johnny, and his death inspires her to honor his memory by trying to fill his spot on the soccer team. But school rules prohibit women from participating in male sports, prompting her to appeal the statute, while at the same time coaxing her father to train her the way he trained Johnny.

Directed by Elisabeth Shues husband Davis Guggenheim (most notable for helming the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth), Gracie has a pleasant predictability with its inevitable happy ending telegraphed in its first scenes. But lacking any memorable performances and with a script that fails to properly dramatize Graces personal journey from rebellious teen to driven athlete the movie just dutifully follows genre conventions without much pizzazz. Gracie is a real family affair Elisabeths brother Andrew has a small part and worked on the story, and the film is dedicated to their father and yet theres very little heartfelt or endearing about this tale.

Great sports movies benefit from a riveting central character, usually an athlete who rises to glory despite long odds or a coach who motivates his players to reach deep within themselves to defeat a stronger opponent. Gracie has two such potential characters, but both are poorly conceived and end up being only moderately sympathetic.

The first is Grace (or Gracie, as shes called by those close to her). After Johnnys death, her grades deteriorate and she starts running with a more dangerous crowd, dating boys who just want to sleep with her. While its clear that Graces transformation from an innocent tomboy into a more self-destructive adolescent is a reaction to the loss of her saintly brother, Guggenheim and his writers neither establish Graces earlier virtue nor make her later rebelliousness seem particularly worrisome. A few curse words notwithstanding, Gracie possesses such a bland, family-friendly surface that when the film tries to show her dark side, it mostly feels awkward and toothless.

But part of the blame must rest with Schroeder as well. Though the filmmakers envision her more as a symbol of spunky feminism than as an actual character, Schroeder doesnt radiate much charisma on her own. In her early scenes with Johnny, she comes across as sweet and sassy, a real spitfire. But afterward, whether shes trying to remake herself as a bad girl or later getting in shape to try out for the soccer team, she seems uncomfortable navigating through Graces personality shifts.

The other central figure is her father Bryan, a former soccer star who now works manual labor at a moving company. Bryan has projected all his athletic aspirations onto Johnny, and when his son dies, he is left reeling. When Grace decides to take up the mantle for the family, he is at first resistant, but then slowly comes around to train her. Mulroney does well depicting Bryans defeated masculinity, but the script doesnt play fair, consistently forcing him to badmouth Graces efforts in order to create an artificial obstacle for her. When he later begins motivating his daughter to believe that she can compete with any boy on the soccer field, Bryan is supposedly simultaneously letting go of Johnnys memory so that he can move on with his own life. But by that point, his change of heart feels unmotivated, more a necessity of sports-movie dictums than an organic development in the story.

The rest of the performances are solid but dull. Elisabeth Shue mostly fades into the background as Grace and Bryan square off, occasionally offering an encouraging word or delivering a three-hankie speech near the end. The misogynistic boys on the high school soccer team (led by Christopher Shand) behave in an over-the-top bullying manner that makes it nearly impossible to root for them when Grace joins the squad. Gracie is that rare sports film that requires the audience to cheer for the main character while actively hating her teammates.

As would be expected, Gracie concludes with a pivotal game between Graces team and its archrivals. But Guggenheims staging of the big contest doesnt allow for much excitement, no matter how stirring Mark Ishams score is. In the right hands, a competitive soccer game can be an exhilarating viewing experience with its nifty passing and tense anticipation as one team moves ever so closer to scoring. But as with the rest of the film, little imagination has been expended here. For a movie that preaches the importance of going all-out for a dream, Gracie mostly goes through the motions.

Credits

Running time: 92 minutes

Director: Davis Guggenheim
Production companies: Ursa Major Films, Elevation Filmworks
US distribution: Picturehouse
Producers: Andrew Shue, Lemore Syvan, Elisabeth Shue, Davis Guggenheim
Executive producers: Dustin Cohn, Tom Fox, Cindy Alston, Mead Welles, Jeff Arnold
Screenplay: Lisa Marie Petersen, Karen Janszen (story by Andrew Shue, Ken Himmelman, Davis Guggenheim)
Cinematography: Chris Manley
Editor: Elizabeth King
Production design: Dina Goldman
Music: Mark Isham

Cast

Grace (Carly Schroeder)
Bryan (Dermot Mulroney)
Lindsay (Elizabeth Shue)
Kyle (Christopher Shand)
Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer)