If Anthony Scarpa’s film “Grace” (2004) were a novel or a non-fiction account of a brother’s struggle in dealing with losing his sister to Lou Gehrig’s disease, it would sit on a shelf either with inspirational books or with those about death and dying. As a film, however, “Grace” transcends these categories, presenting the portrait of a young man who replaces his own worries with other people’s—but not for noble or self-righteous reasons.
Jessie (Kyle Ingelman) and his sister Gabby (Kate Clarke) learn that the condition of her illness—Lou Gehrig’s disease—is entering its fatal stage. After enduring a steady deterioration of muscle control, Gabby accepts that she doesn’t have much time left. Jessie, on the other hand, is feeling something between disbelief and helplessness. “Grace” depicts Gabby’s brother as level-headed on the exterior and his frustrations are situation appropriate, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to how he copes than meets the eye.
The central figure in Scarpa’s film is Jessie, a philosophical artist who is compelled to take on the burdens of the people he knows because he does not have the courage to confront his own insecurities and vulnerabilities. He fights psychological battles for his sister, his nephew Matthew (David Hall), and a homeless friend John (Matt Godecker). Jessie does not necessarily act on anyone’s behalf; instead he siphons their mental pain, effectively becoming the ideal empathizer. He is afraid of what his nephew’s life will be like without a mother and with a father who seems more concerned with the local bar than spending more time at home. He feels bad that his sister won’t be able to watch her son grow up and that John may never find meaning again in life after his “daughter” was taken away from him.
By creating a character that chooses to ache for other people, Scarpa explores the way loss affects these individuals. Jessie thinks he’s losing his mind, Gabby’s losing control over her body (and ultimately her life), and her husband Tom (Chris Fetherolf) is faltering under the realization that his wife will soon be gone. These manifestations of loss overwhelm Jessie’s conscious ability to handle them, but it is not until his girlfriend Jasmine (Shyla Marlin) calls him on it that he recognizes it. What’s unique about Jessie is that when he experiences psychosomatic symptoms of mental anguish, or gets angry at Jasmine and Tom, we completely understand.
Emotions inevitably run all over the map when a family is dealing with a loved one who has a terminal illness. “Grace” conveys that Jessie’s method of negotiating stress may alienate others, but in the end, he is asked to do something that is a significant test of his strength. He wouldn’t be able to do it if he was anything but someone who would hurt for you than for himself.