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By Jeremy Mathews | December 9, 2007

“Grace is Gone” is a film that depends entirely on whether you feel empathy for its characters. Luckily, John Cusack’s brilliant performance as Stan captures the experience of a newly bereaved husband whose wife dies while serving in Iraq.

Cusack’s performance is a revelation. The role of a suburban father is not a common one for the hip actor, and he plays this disheveled and heartbroken man with great understanding. If he didn’t, the story would fall apart.

Upon the delivery of the news that his wife is dead, Stan goes into shock. Even worse, the responsibility of telling his two daughters what has happened is too grave a task for him to handle. He instead tells them they can skip school for a few days and go on a road trip to an amusement park. This way, they will have some happiness before their hearts are broken.

Cusack proves himself a good guide for his child-actor costars, Shélan O’Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk who play Stan’s 12-year-old daughter Heidi and his eight-year-old daugher Dawn, respectively. As the more mature one, Heidi can clearly sense that something is wrong, but writer/director James C. Strouse is careful to ensure that the kids stay kids—fighting with each other in the car, getting excited about the little things in life—rather than making a character who stands around moping. Dawn is even more of a free spirit, but also old enough to feel emotionally confused about her absent mother.

Visually, Strouse’s calm and collected direction isn’t as developed in his debut as it could be. The movie’s editing is sometimes clunky and jarring, and the cinematography looks like a lot of other independent films telling the stories of everyday people.

But Strouse’s screenplay carries the compelling drama with a sense for small details over grandiose statements. While there are political discussions in the film—Stanley supports the war and is proud of his wife’s service, his brother (Alessandro Nivola) distrusts the U.S. government and doesn’t—Strouse’s sole objective is to study the extreme grief Stanley suffers. And at that, he succeeds.

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