PARK CITY, Utah - Last year's big road-trip tale at the Sundance Film Festival was greeted with guffaws. This year's has met with sobs. Both "Little Miss Sunshine" from last year and the current Sundance entry "Grace Is Gone" are highway heartbreakers, "Sunshine" showing a family that comes together through hilarious adversity, "Grace" depicting a family shattered by the cruelest of tragedies.
Starring John Cusack, "Grace" tells the story of a stern, loving but emotionally distant father who learns his wife, an Army sergeant, has been killed in Iraq. Unable to tell his two young daughters, he takes them on a trip to an amusement park, buying a few days before he has to break the news.
First-time director James C. Strouse's script came Cusack's way at just the right moment. Angry that the Bush administration had banned media footage of coffins coming home bearing soldiers killed in Iraq, Cusack had been looking to tell the story behind one of those coffins.
"I thought it was the most brazen, cowardly, egregious political act I'd seen in my lifetime," Cusack said in an interview. "Do you think that's going to stop anything? Do you think if you don't show the coffins we won't find out?"
Cusack, 40, also was interested in doing something "that didn't have me in it in a lot of ways." His character, Stanley Phillips, is a humble family man, an atypical role for the actor whose credits include plenty of misfits and fringe players in such films as "The Grifters," "Being John Malkovich" and "High Fidelity."
Mostly acting opposite adults in the past, Cusack spends most of his time in "Grace" in the company of Stanley's 12-year-old (Shelan O'Keefe) and 8-year-old (Grace Bednarczyk), both making their film debuts.
Unlike liberal-minded Cusack, Stanley is a true believer in the Iraq war who feels the United States has to take action overseas to protect itself, a man who wanted to serve in the military himself if not for his bad eyesight.
"I thought, how do you really get inside that and not editorialize or comment on him, not know better than him, not get in an argument with him, but love him absolutely and really try to understand where he's coming from and how he feels?" Cusack said.
"Grace Is Gone" is one of several Iraq-themed films at Sundance, which runs through Sunday, including the documentaries "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," Rory Kennedy's examination of abuses by U.S. jailers at the prison, and "No End in Sight," Charles Ferguson's analysis of President Bush's handling of the war.
Many people left Saturday night's premiere of "Grace Is Gone" sniffling and teary-eyed, the simple yet powerful story immersing viewers in one family's sorrow while resonating with Americans' growing sentiment against the war.
"I hope it's the type of story that holds up five or 10 years from now, but I hope that it does sort of hit a nerve," said director Strouse, who wrote "Lonesome Jim," which premiered at Sundance last year. "Part of the inspiration was to take it out of the war debate and just show real consequences and let that speak for itself. Not say one thing or the other, but just let people decide for themselves."
Like "Little Miss Sunshine," which was snapped up by Fox Searchlight last year, "Grace Is Gone" connected with film buyers as well as audiences. The Weinstein Co. bought "Grace Is Gone" for $4.1 million early Sunday morning, just hours after the film's premiere.
With company founder and savvy Academy Awards campaigner Harvey Weinstein behind it, the film could earn Cusack the Oscar attention that has eluded him so far.
Cusack brings a marvelous mix of restraint, tearful anguish and hesitant paternal affection to Stanley, a man both proud of his wife's service for her country and devastated by the sacrifice forced on his family.
Missing out on awards attention does not seem to bother Cusack.
"I kind of feel comfortable not being in the VIP circle," Cusack said. "I don't want to be too inside the system. I have a good thing where I'm both in it and out of it at the same time. ...
"I also think that if you don't run for office, you shouldn't be bitter that you didn't get elected. I'm sure if Harvey gets this up, and he said he thinks the performances are really strong, he'll really push it, and he's great at that politics. So he'll push me in it, and maybe something will happen."
In the Sundance catalogue, "Grace Is Gone" is referred to as an "antiwar movie," a description Cusack and Strouse are a little reluctant to embrace for worries it could turn off viewers, giving them the impression the film is a political diatribe rather than a hushed portrait of grief.
"If that puts it into a certain box of being an angry polemic, no," Cusack said. "But do I think it's an antiwar movie? Absolutely."
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