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John Cusack turns in a magnificent performance in Grace is Gone.

Grace is Gone is about Stan (John Cusack), a husband and father of two girls who strongly supports his wife fighting in Iraq. One day, he gets news at his doorstep from men in uniform. We’ve seen a lot of war movies, and the image hits us almost as immediatley as it does Stan.

He is told that Grace, his wife, is dead. He doesn’t know how to register this, and when his kids return home from school, he has to decide how to break the news. Instead, he creates a diversion, for both himself and his kids, by taking them on a road trip.

The movie isn’t particularly arty: there’s no eye-catching mise-en-scene or revealing montage or triple-speaking lines of dialogue. It’s not even very layered. The movie is so enjoyable, even though it’s about a depressing subject, because of the performances from Cusack, who has a phenomenal filmography like few others his age, and Shélan O’Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk, whom are both in their first film roles as the two girls playing Cusack’s daughters Heidi (the elder) and Dawn (the younger), respectively.

At one point, the movie jokes in a non-deprecating manner about the great differences we have with each other, even with family members, about the conflict in Iraq. Stan and his brother (who I didn’t recognize as Alessandro Nivola, the husband in Junebug) differ on political issues, and the movie is sweet in the way it shows faults with both idealogies. In one scene, Stan’s brother is trying to explain to his nieces not to believe everything their dad tells them, because they need to make their own opinions “based on fact, but sometimes those facts or wrong.” Heidi simply states, “Uncle, that doesn’t make any sense.” She’s right. It doesn’t.

But what also doesn’t make any sense, which the movie attacks, is how real-life children of soldiers in Iraq are forced to deal with the death and, in addition, make an opinion of the war: either they look at their parent as a hero or one who died in vain. A young child should not have to contemplate such heavy decisions, and we can see such pressure take it’s toll on Heidi, who sleeps in class because she can’t sleep at night as she thinks about her mom.

Some picky filmgoers may have a problem with the movie’s use of some indie clichés like trips in cars, kids being cute, and family bonding, especially through a tragedy. Grace is Gone, however, rises above these elements, using them in a new way to communicate a diferent message.

In addition, there’re a couple of movie references (either subtle or not necessarily even intentional), including the endings of Say Anything and The 400 Blows. They don’t make us feel ripped off, though. As a matter of fact, it moved me a little more as the scenes dug into my subconscious and brought out the emotion that I felt during those movies. This shows that James C. Strouse, the film’s writer/director, has learned from the masters how to handle these important scenes, and he pulls them off wonderfully.

I really can’t find much, if any, fault with Grace is Gone. Consider it highly recommended among this year’s three-and-a-half-stars movies.

NOTE: To those worrying about whether the movie bad-mouths soldiers in Iraq, you can be assured that it’s very respectful of the troops. I would be hard pressed to think of a single moment that I found to be in bad taste in reference to the families of soldiers who have died. The movie kindly asks us to set politics aside and to remember these soldiers and what they have done in the name of our country.

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