Sports movies are a dime a dozen, and most fall into the trap of whittling down their whole reason for being to a climactic "big game." By now, following the hoary cliches of the genre handbook is stale, lazy, and usually offers nothing that hasn't been seen before. The best sports pictures, then, aren't necessarily about an inspirational coach, or a ragtag team, or an all-important championship, but narrow their gaze on a single individual whose passions and struggles in life are magnified through their love of the game. Watching a relatable protagonist rise above adversity and beat the odds is what truly captures the heart of an audience, and that is why classic underdog stories, like 1976's "Rocky" and 1993's "Rudy," endure through the years while disposable efforts like 2004's "Mr. 3000
" and 2006's "Coach Carter
" are destined to be forgotten.
Inspired by the real-life teenage experiences of actress Elisabeth Shue, "Gracie" steadfastly earns a spot in the former category. A wise and wonderfully told coming-of-age drama, the film's focus is not on its sport of choicesoccerbut on a fifteen-year-old girl growing up, making mistakes, learning responsibility, and gaining the strength and willpower to prove the societal majority wrong. "Gracie" is a true family affairin addition to the participation of Elisabeth Shue (2005's "Hide and Seek
"), who also produces, her younger brother Andrew co-stars, co-produces, and receives a story credit, and her husband Davis Guggenheim (2006's "An Inconvenient Truth
") directsbut this is not some kind of self-involved novelty project; their combined heartfelt desire to bring this story to the screen has led to a finished product both smart enough and good enough to please a wide viewership, including those not normally fans of so-called "sports movies." The real question is whether or not it will be able to survive among the bigger-budgeted, concept-ready blockbusters of the summer season.
Set in South Orange, New Jersey, circa 1978, Gracie Bowen (Carly Schroeder) is the sole daughter in a family of sports-playing sons. When her beloved older brother Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer), a star high school soccer player and the apple in father Bryan's (Dermot Mulroney) eye, is suddenly killed in a car accident, the family is torn with grief. Gracie is adamant that she wants to take over where Johnny left off and join the varsity soccer team, but Bryan, believing that she isn't tough enough to play among boys, discourages it. By the time he comes around and agrees to train his daughter in preparation for the late-summer tryouts, Gracie is faced with a new challenge: convincing the school board that a female should be given the same chance as any of her male classmates for a spot on the team.
"Gracie" follows suit on some of the conventions of such a story, and the plot trajectory is more frequently predictable than not. As written by Karen Janszen (2002's "A Walk to Remember
") and Lisa Marie Petersen, however, the film is one that thrives on a woman's perspective. The movie is authentic and sympathetic to Gracie, both as a human being and in regard to her plight. Janszen and Petersen, as well as director Davis Guggenheim and the entire Shue clan, are sure not to trivialize the tale they are telling, instead treating it with the proper scope, emotions, and loose narrative it merits. "Gracie" is not really about soccer, but about the personal journey one young woman goes on in her path toward maturation and proving her worth in a sexist society where girls competing with boys is frowned upon and seen as a threat.
"Gracie" doesn't necessarily break new ground as a motion picture2004's "Raise Your Voice
" told a very similar story, with singing in the place of soccerbut it is surprisingly tough, involving and entertaining. Manipulative dramatic sugarcoating is nowhere to be found, and thank goodness for that. Gracie is the ideal heroine, and the arc she experiences is truthfully depicted, going from a flawed, stubborn, rebellious teenage girl prone to placing herself in some sticky situations with the opposite sex, to a disciplined, determined, courageous person willing to do what it takes to change other people's minds about her capabilities. Gracie loves soccer on her own, but the memory of her late brother is never far from her mind; she wants to make him proud, wherever he may be, and it is this added weight on Gracie's shoulders that brings depth and levity to her goals.
Carly Schroeder (2006's "Firewall
") is transcendent in the title role, strong enough for the viewer to believe in her abilities, but not so much that the question of whether or not she can triumph fully dissipates. Her demanding performance, equal parts likable and unsentimental, is close to flawless, and the fact that she appears to be doing all of her own soccer-playing onscreen is an immeasurable added bonus. Ably supporting Schroeder is a memorable ensemble that includes Dermot Mulroney (2007's "Georgia Rule
"), whose father-daughter relationship with Gracie is the touching core of the picture; Elisabeth Shue, whose part as mother Lindsay grows extra dimensions when it is revealed that her own dreams of becoming a surgeon were never met; and Julia Garro (2006's "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints"), who steals her scenes as Gracie's best friend Jena.
"Gracie" is low-key and observant, but also emotionally impactful, and the finale, which should be discovered for oneself, is just right without turning saccharine. For a relatively minimal budget, technical credits are impressive too. The production design, set decoration, and costumes aid in transporting the audience back to the late-seventies era, and the use of a soundtrack that includes classic tunes from Bruce Springsteen, Boston, Blondie, Sweet, and Thin Lizzy, is top-notch. In the annals of sports flicks of the twenty-first century, "Gracie" eclipses practically all of them. Granted, that's not the biggest of feats, but it deserves the distinction.