The Films of James C. Strouse
Grace is Gone (May 29/08)
Small and unassuming, Grace is Gone packs an emotional wallop that ultimately belies its low-key sensibilities - with star John Cusack's career-defining performance certainly playing a key role in the film's unexpected success. Cusack stars as Stanley Philipps, a small-time manager who is stunned to learn that his military wife has been killed in combat. Unable to tell his daughters (Shelan O'Keefe's Heidi and Gracie Bednarczyk's Dawn) that their mother is dead, Stanley instead decides to delay the inevitable by taking the girls on a cross-country road trip to Florida-based amusement park Enchanted Gardens. Writer/director James C. Strouse - making his debut here - has infused Grace is Gone with a laid-back feel that mirrors his quiet and distinctly subtle screenplay, as the filmmaker devotes the majority of the proceedings to character-building sequences revolving around the trio's languidly-paced journey (which is, not surprisingly, rife with personal revelations). It's the strength of the central actors' work that ensures one never craves a more substantial storyline, however, and there's little doubt that Cusack - who effectively sheds his sardonic persona to convincingly become this downtrodden, sedate figure - remains the most overt element behind the film's often profoundly moving atmosphere. And though Strouse occasionally relies on manipulative techniques to elicit a visceral reaction from the viewer, Grace is Gone primarily comes off as an affecting and flat-out engrossing piece of work that's nothing short of heartbreaking in its emotional honesty.
The Winning Season
People Places Things (July 13/18)
People Places Things casts Jemaine Clement as Will Henry, a newly-single graphic novelist/teacher who attempts to raise his two small daughters and navigate the fraught world of middle-aged dating. It's a simple, stripped-down premise that's employed to watchable (if unspectacular) effect by James C. Strouse, as the writer/director does a good job of establishing the central character and the various well-defined figures in his life - with the movie benefiting quite substantially from Clement's surprisingly strong work as the somewhat depressive protagonist. (And it's clear, too, that Strouse has managed to elicit solid work from a uniformly impressive supporting cast.) Strouse's ongoing emphasis on overly off-kilter instances of comedy and character development sometimes prevents the viewer from entirely embracing the material, however, and it's clear, too, that the narrative's decidedly spare nature ensures that the picture is rarely as compelling and engrossing as one might've hoped (ie the movie's never quite able to make it up to the level of the various actors). There's nevertheless little doubt that People Places Things slowly-but-surely manages to grow on the viewer, with the pervasively easygoing atmosphere, in addition to Clement's note-perfect turn, ultimately transforming the film into a low-key yet winning indie dramedy.
The Incredible Jessica James