EmptyLoosely based on the soccer-centric Shue clan's tale of tragedy and triumph in the late-1970s, "Gracie" is a true family affair. Siblings Andrew, Elisabeth and John are among its producers, the former two appear in the feature, and Elisabeth's husband, Davis Guggenheim, directs. But for all the personal ties to the material, the film too often reaches for broad-strokes inspiration in a way that feels generic.
It's not without well-observed moments, though, and in the title role, Carly Schroeder makes an agreeably flawed and feisty rooting interest. As counterprogramming to the season's megasequels, "Gracie" could score a modest goal at the boxoffice.
The film's understated portrayal of family dynamics is one of its strengths. In 1978 New Jersey, the Bowens are shattered but carry on stoically after eldest son Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer) dies in a car crash. Hours before his death, he had missed a penalty kick that cost his high school soccer team theseason-closing game, and 15-year-old Gracie determines to lead the team to a one-for-the-Gipper victory next year.
It's a bold vision, fueled not only by love of the game and grief over her adored brother but real courage; despite Title IX, soccer is not seen as a girls' sport. Even Gracie's soccer-mad father (Dermot Mulroney), who coaches a varsity-wannabe neighbor (Joshua Caras), responds to the idea with a dismissive laugh. Her two young brothers (Hunter Schroeder, Trevor Heins) are no less condescending.
With a willfulness that her mother (Elisabeth Shue) rightly calls fierce, Gracie takes on the school administration, smug team members led by a would-be seducer (Christopher Shand) and, not least, her father, who alternately adopts her cause and undermines it. She also makes time for good old-fashioned adolescent acting out, sneaking into clubs with a precocious friend (Julia Garro) and looking for trouble with college boys at the Jersey Shore.
Refreshingly, the script by Lisa Marie Petersen and Karen Janszen doesn't sanitize Gracie's character for the sake of sculpting a role model, but the story nonetheless unfolds predictably. In his first narrative feature since 2000's "Gossip," Guggenheim -- who won an Oscar this year for "An Inconvenient Truth" -- doesn't always transcend the story line's clunky, cliched trajectory. But he and DP Chris Manley use the New Jersey locations to subtle effect, and they convey a good deal about character through soccer, especially in the opening sequence, which establishes the bond between Gracie and Johnny, and in the story's climactic game. Dina Goldman's low-key production design and Mark Isham's score never overwhelm the tale, though the period soundtrack sometimes threatens to.
At the film's best, between-the-lines details illuminate the drama. As a man devastated by the loss of a child and taking care of his fading father, Mulroney delivers moments of heartbreak too big to articulate. But much of the time, he seems caught in a strange combo of driven and enervated. Because the script treats his character's frequent reversals as plot mechanics rather than convincing behavior, he seldom pierces the surface. He's not alone; all the film's male characterizations fall flat.
The women fare better. Whether striding onto the field past a gaggle of cheerleaders or flirting her way past a bouncer, Schroeder ("Lizzie McGuire") is a natural as Gracie, whose athleticism and self-respect are inseparable facets of extraordinary inner resources. The film helps to explain the steel that has so affectingly tempered Shue's femininity in her screen work. Here, in a typically lovely performance, she plays a woman who must face her own aching disappointments as she watches her daughter meet life head-on.
An Ursa Major Films/Elevation Filmworks production
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Screenwriters: Lisa Marie Petersen, Karen Janszen
Story: Andrew Shue, Ken Himmelman, Davis Guggenheim
Producers: Andrew Shue, Lemore Syvan, Elisabeth Shue, Davis Guggenheim
Executive producers: Dustin Cohn, Tom Fox, Cindy Alston, Mead Welles, Jeff Arnold
Director of photography: Chris Manley
Production designer: Dina Goldman
Music: Mark Isham
Co-producers: John Shue, Ken Himmelman, Andrew Wiese, Chris Frisina
Costume designer: Elizabeth Caitlin Ward
Editor: Elizabeth Kling
Bryan Bowen: Dermot Mulroney
Lindsay Bowen: Elisabeth Shue
Grace Bowen: Carly Schroeder
Coach Colasanti: John Doman
Coach Owen Clark: Andrew Shue
Principal Enright: Peter McRobbie
Chairwoman Connie Bowsher: Leslie Lyles
Johnny Bowen: Jesse Lee Soffer
Peter Wicker: Joshua Caras
Jena Walpen: Julia Garro
Kyle Rhodes: Christopher Shand
Mike Bowen: Hunter Schroeder
Daniel Bowen: Trevor Heins
Granddad: Madison Arnold
Running time -- 98 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13