Sports films might be the most formulaic genre there is, and they end one of two ways: the big win or the close loss that teaches the value of trying, good sportsmanship, teamwork, etc. That’s it – unless you count Alive as a sports film, in which case it ends with ‘white meat or dark?’ It’s how a sports movie plays in those confines that makes it a good sports movie. Gracie, despite my monstrous disbelief in it before the lights lowered, is a good sports movie.
I didn’t expect much from Gracie for a couple of reasons: one, it’s a ‘minority group must overcome prejudice’ sports movie; in this case, it’s a girl who wants to play soccer. Second, it’s a soccer movie. I don’t care about sports at all in the real world, but soccer might be the sport I care about least. Curling has the advantage of being inherently hilarious. Now, don’t get me wrong – I do think minorities groups should struggle to overcome prejudice in sports, whether it’s cripples in the marathon or Jamaicans in the bobsled or whatever heartwarming topic you’ve chosen for your sports movie. The problem is that these stories usually ring dramatically hollow because the deck is so stacked against us – not only is the hero an underdog in the sport, he’s also mentally retarded! On top of that, I tend to not to be able to identify with the heroes of these films; nobody wants a Chinese guy in the badminton league? Oh well, play another game. It’s just a goddamned game.
But Gracie is different because the titular character isn’t just angry about being shut out of soccer, she’s downright furious. That I can identify with, that outsider rage railing against the corrupt and shitty system. As my expanding gut will testify, I don’t understand the drive to wake up in the morning before dark and drink a raw egg and run six miles just to win a contest… but I do understand it to spite your dad who didn’t give you support, or the school board who held you down or the jock who strung you along and made you think he loved you just so he could humiliate you (hey, I had a complicated adolescence), all the reasons that Gracie gets up every morning and trains so hard. Of course the movie pretends like she does it ‘for the love of the game,’ but as it’s played in the movie it’s pure fury, pure vengeance through excellence. I love that.
Based loosely on the experiences of the Shue family (yes, as in Billy Campbell from Melrose Place), Gracie is set in 1978, long before Mia Hamm proved that girls playing soccer could also leave America uninterested. The Bowen family is a big clan in New Jersey, and dad (Dermot Mulroney) is a soccer freak. He trains the eldest kid, Johnny all day and night, and Johnny’s the star of the local team… until he fucks up the final free kick against hated rivals Huntington and then gets killed in a car accident. God will not tolerate failure, Johnny. Gracie was Johnny’s sister but also his best friend (and seemingly more – the actors playing the role seem to have some sizzling sexual chemistry, if you ask me. But then again I’m a pervert), and she loved playing soccer with him. In the months after Johnny’s death she comes up with a brainstorm – she’ll help lead the team to victory over Kingston by playing in Johnny’s place. But dad won’t have any part of it and everyone else ridicules and humiliates her.
The first act of Gracie is tough – there’s a lot of maudlin shit going on with Johnny’s death (the Shue’s older brother, who played soccer, also died in a car accident) and Mulroney seems to be playing the dad as a little too cold – close to hilariously so. But in the second act it all starts to gel as the movie doesn’t have Gracie move right into soccer; instead she starts tramping it up, skipping school and making out with college boys on the Jersey Shore. Not only was all this edgy (for a film of this type, which I assumed would be a bland girl power movie), but it also offers dad a good reason to break down and train Gracie to play soccer – he lost his son and now he sees that he’s about to lose his daughter. I actually bought that, and it made the off-putting coldness of the first act work.
From there it’s all training and preparation and the propping up of mean characters to get their comeuppance in the movie’s climactic ballgame against… you guessed it, Kingston. Gracie’s impressive in that it doesn’t stint on the training – it shows the regimen to be brutal and exhausting. The film also doesn’t play down the differences between boys and girls, in that it shows Gracie to not be as physically aggressive as her male teammates. She’s athletic and powerful, but she’s not a field hockey dyke, either.
Carly Schroeder is Gracie, and she makes the film. She’s unusually beautiful – her hair is so blonde as to be almost white, and her skin seems translucent. She has a stronger jaw and a wider nose than you might expect from a teen starlet, but it works for her. Her face is distinctive, not like the cookie cutter girls who roll off of sitcoms and tween films, and I hope that she never goes under the knife to tweak that nose into a tiny button. It’s her eyes that sell the character, though, especially since Gracie is so often sullen. Schroeder’s a terrific young actress, even if some of the emotional ‘Johnny’s dead!’ stuff was over the top.
Mulroney, after I ‘got’ his character, also ended up being incredibly solid. Weirdly, Elizabeth Shue, playing Gracie’s mom, gets the short end of the stick. An unliberated but working woman, Shue’s character just keeps getting shoved to the sidelines of the film. There’s one of those triumphant scenes at the end and Shue is left on the bleachers while everyone else spills onto the field, and I have to say I like this – it’s real. Gracie ends up connecting with her dad, but never her mom. That happens; happy endings are usually happy in degrees.
The movie’s finale is a touch overwrought – like I said, sports movies only have two endings, but this one tries to have both, and it tries to have about three versions of each. Still, I felt like the movie earned its final ending, and I think Gracie is one of those ‘inspirational’ movies that really is kind of inspirational. I am a sucker for triumph in movies; I cry every time, but it often feels like a cheap one night stand, like I got off but the movie manipulated me into that situation and it wasn’t that fulfilling. Gracie is manipulative, but the movie is a smooth talker, and I didn’t feel so guilty afterwards.
I’m not a proponent of girls – or anyone – playing soccer (I had a brief soccer career where the only goal I ever scored was in my team’s own net), but if you have a teenaged or about to be teenaged girl, this is a great movie for her. It’s not a rough view of adolescence a la River’s Edge or the oeuvre of Larry Clark, but it’s also not a frilly, ultimately phony Ice Princess. Gracie is a rousing sports film that ultimately earns that lump in your throat.