Friday, March 20, 2015

Gracie's Choice (Mike Robe Productions, Stephanie Germain Productions, Nova Scotia Film Industry Tax Credit, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie from the Lifetime backlog that proved to be astonishingly good: Gracie’s Choice, a 2004 production directed by Peter Werner (whose name is also on the laundry list of 11 “producers” even though I suspect he did the lion’s share of the actual production work) from a script by Joyce Eliason based on a nonfiction story in the Reader’s Digest by Rena Dictor Le Blanc. Gracie Thompson (Kristen Bell, an excellent actress cursed with a kewpie-doll face that was excellently suited for this part but probably handicapped her for other roles) is the eldest daughter of Rowena Lawson (Anne Heche, who after her spectacular breakup with Ellen De Generes and the crazy memoir she wrote, in which she insisted that aside from her fling with Ellen she’d been totally straight, which was believable, and that she had hallucinated being abducted by space aliens, seemed to get typecast in these sorts of demented roles). Rowena has had six kids, three girls and three boys, but each had a different father because Rowena has spent her life traveling around the country, living (or at least partnering with) one sleazy boyfriend after another and doing a wide variety of drugs. At the beginning she and her latest fuck de jour are cornered by police; they barely make it out and the boyfriend gives her the kiss-off, telling her she’s on her own. She escapes it that time and settles into another community, where she lasts long enough to get the kids enrolled in school, but when mom’s latest male pickup decides to try to rape Gracie, Gracie fights him off but sustains injuries that school officials notice and have to report to the authorities.

Mom ends up in jail and the kids end up in a youth facility, and when they’re finally released they’re taken in by their grandmother, religious fanatic Louela Lawson (Diane Ladd) — only it turns out that Louela can’t say no to her scapegrace daughter Rowena, so Rowena moves in with them (a big no-no under the terms of their release agreement) and Louela gives her the $520 per month in “caregiver money” she’s getting from the county wherever this is taking place. (Like most Lifetime movies, this was filmed in Canada and Canadian locations “played” U.S. ones, but instead of being made in the usual centers of Canadian film production, Vancouver and Montreal, this one was shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and “Nova Scotia Film Industry Tax Credit” even got listed as one of the companies that made it.) So Gracie determines to move the kids out of grandma’s house and literally raise them herself, funding this with her job as a waitress (she calls herself a “barista” but the establishment where she works looked more like a restaurant than a coffeehouse to me) and keeping her five brothers and sisters in line with a maniacal intensity. At high school she attracts a boyfriend, Tommy (Shedrack Anderson III), product of a mixed-race relationship (which explains his appearance — obviously of African descent but about Obama’s color) — it’s a measure of some degree of racial progress that she can be shown dating a Black guy and it isn’t a big deal in the plot — and he encourages her to apply for a college scholarship so they can be together and got to the same university, but she doesn’t want to because she doesn’t think she’ll have the time to do college work and raise five children. Then Rowena, the poster-child for parental irresponsibility, gets out of jail and wants to regain custody of the kids — I got the impression that by this time Gracie’s sisters have aged out of legal minority but the boys are still of the age where they legally need some sort of parent or guardian — and Gracie’s father, whom she hasn’t seen since she was two, turns up but only to ask her to sign a paper saying that he wasn’t the father of Rowena’s other kids and therefore isn’t obligated to pay the back child support Rowena is trying to get out of him. Gracie determines to go to court to terminate her mom’s parental rights over her brothers and adopt them herself, despite warnings from her pro bono attorney that this is going to be expensive (apparently all the kids’ fathers have to be contacted to see if they’re cool with losing their parental rights) and the breakup with Tommy it precipitates, since he gives her a them-or-me ultimatum and makes it clear that the only kids she wants to see Gracie raising are the ones he was hoping to have with her.

The film’s climax is in family court, with Rowena attempting to entice the kids back to her by promising them a fantasy life on a ranch in Wyoming once she sells grandma’s house (Louela has died and, during the scene of the funeral, the minister officiating at the service pronounces the “t” in “often”) and the boys, having heard their mom’s fairy tales way too often, decide they want their sister to raise them instead. The judge grants Gracie’s adoption petition and gives them five minutes to select a new family name so the rest of the world will realize they’re the biological relations they actually are — and, looking at one of the names on the sign in the courtroom lobby identifying the judges and court personnel, they pick “Weatherly” because of everything they’ve “weathered” over the years. Gracie’s Choice is a marvelous film, profoundly moving precisely because director Werner and writer Eliason tell the story simply and straightforwardly, refusing to “milk” something that was already sufficiently emotionally intense they didn’t need to push the buttons and go for the obvious tear-jerking. While I didn’t care for the brown-toned cinematography by Neil Roach — just why have dirty browns and greens become the default tonality for film after film, especially any film aspiring to seriousness? — I was gripped enough by the sensitivity of the direction, writing and acting (the final scene in court, in which Anne Heche loses it after she realizes her children have abandoned her, could have been an excuse for scenery-chewing but Werner restrains her, making her believable as a woman with a twisted sense of values but a sense of values nonetheless) that I cried at the end, and at the same time I felt exalted by Gracie’s incredible persistence and triumph over way more adversity than the average person her age (especially one who isn’t living in absolutely dire poverty) ever has to deal with. Gracie’s Choice, though over 10 years old, is the sort of diamond in the rough that keeps me watching Lifetime; I’d hoped it would be good but I hadn’t expected it to be this good!