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In her 1997 comedy Road to Nhill, as well as her more contemplative 2003 drama, Japanese Story, Australian director Sue Brooks observed how the country’s vast empty spaces and remote regional outposts exert their subtle influences on character, behavior and human connection. She continues along that vein in Looking for Grace, which opens strongly, full of poignancy and promise, training its intimate gaze on the teenager of the title, who has run away from her family home to cross the sprawling flat wheat belt of inland Western Australia. But when the focus widens to consider the perspective of other messy lives affected by Grace’s flight, the tone lurches into awkwardness, undercutting the emotional impact.
One of the key themes is the fragility and randomness of destiny, which does acquire some power in the inconclusive film’s quieter stretches, particularly toward the end. These aspects resonate also in the understated compositional beauty of the visuals; cinematographer Katie Milwright captures the solitude of the dry, enveloping landscape, mostly in gorgeous natural light, complemented by composer Elizabeth Drake‘s melodic piano-based score.
Sixteen-year-old Grace (Odessa Young) is first seen sharing earbuds with her friend Saph (Kenya Pearson) as they thrash their heads to unheard hardcore metal, presumably played by a band whose concert they are traveling interstate by bus to attend. With sharp economy of means Brooks sketches the easy intensity of young female friendship, the thrill increased by the wad of stolen cash Grace has stashed in her backpack. But when handsome older stranger Jamie (Harry Richardson) ambles onto the bus, his flirtation with Grace leaves Saph excluded and petulant. Their spell of shared adventure shattered, she bails on the trip, leaving Grace to experience the sting of disappointment alone when Jamie turns out to be no prince after an overnight motel stay.
Beginning with Grace’s Story, Brooks divides her film into sequentially overlapping parts — each of them titled for its central character — that reveal different fragments of what has occurred up to now and will transpire going forward. That works well enough with the shift to Bruce (Myles Pollard), a truck driver who has brought along his young son on a long-distance run; and Tom (Terry Norris), a likeable old coot past retirement age but reluctant to give up detective work.
However, when the story takes in the points of view of Grace’s parents, Dan (Richard Roxburgh) and Denise (Radha Mitchell), and attempts to embrace minor-key humor, things get wobbly. Both actors are miscast, Roxburgh in particular. They push too hard at playing inarticulate folks without the self-awareness to understand or react to any unsettling force that ruptures their sterile, dull world, whether created by themselves or by Grace. It’s immediately clear that this couple barely knows one another, let alone their unrepentant daughter at such a turbulent age. But the domestic drama lacks the psychological complexity and insight to reward such close scrutiny and puzzle-like structure, making the midsection plodding and repetitive.
While Bruce’s involvement in the story begs for greater follow-through, Tom’s thread yields moments of gentle humor and wistful reflection that appear closest to the tone for which Brooks is aiming. With Dan and Denise, however, their respective secrets seem too schematic, and the director, like her actors, misses the mark in scenes designed to show how the triviality of their concerns prevents them from fully expressing or sharing their anxiety over Grace’s fate. There are amusing moments, as in when Dan’s office assistant (Amanda Woodhams) starts bluntly babbling about murder, rape and unsolved disappearances. But for the most part, the light touch required to support the storytelling quirks is absent.
Competing both in Venice and in the Toronto Film Festival’s inaugural Platform section, the handsomely made film is strongest as a vehicle for impressive emerging actress Young (also seen recently in The Daughter), whose internalized performance conveys depths only in intermittent supply elsewhere. Brooks generally is so bewitched by her characters’ opacity that they remain frustratingly remote, even in the rare moments when they open up, diminishing the sorrow of the final-act tragedy.
Cast: Richard Roxburgh, Radha Mitchell, Odessa Young, Terry Norris, Harry Richardson, Kenya Pearson, Myles Pollard, Tasma Walton, Holly Jones, Shirley Van Sanden, Kelton Pell, Rebecca Davis, Peter Rowsthorn, Amanda Woodhams
Production companies: Gecko Films, Taylor Media, Unicorn Films
Director-screenwriter: Sue Brooks
Producers: Lizzette Atkins, Sue Taylor, Alison Tilson
Executive producers: Antonio Zeccola, Benjamin Zeccola, Michael J. Werner, Nelleke Driessen
Director of photography: Katie Milwright
Production designer: Clayton Jauncey
Costume designer: Terri Lamera
Music: Elizabeth Drake
Editor: Peter Carrodus
Casting: Jane Norris
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 101 minutes.
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