Saving Grace B. Jones: Film Review

Connie Stevens' directorial debut blends family drama with psychological thriller to ultimately uneven effect.

Veteran actress Connie Stevens makes her directorial debut with this '50s-set drama based on a true incident from her childhood.

Making her feature directorial debut at the tender age of 70, veteran actress Connie Stevens delivers an obviously heartfelt but sadly unfocused melodrama in the form of Saving Grace B. Jones. The 2009 film, which Stevens also wrote and produced, is based on an actual incident from her childhood, but sometimes truth does not make for credible or compelling drama.

Set in 1951 and filmed in Boonville, Missouri, where the real-life events took place, the film tells its story through the eyes of ten-year-old Carrie (Rylee Fansler), who witnesses a fatal stabbing in Brooklyn. She’s sent to recover from the trauma by spending the summer in the heartland with family friends Landy (Michael Biehn), his wife Bea (Penelope Ann Miller) and their young daughter.

The timing might have been better, as that’s exactly when Landy--the town’s baker and the sort of kindly type who refuses to shoot a fox that’s taken refuge outside his shop—suddenly decides to obtain the release of his sister Grace (Tatum O’Neal) from the oppressive mental asylum to which she’s been confined for two decades.

 At first Grace merely seems highly taciturn and awkward, as when she literally freezes upon setting sight on her former fiancé. But her odd behavior soon descends from bad to worse, and she falls completely apart in a violent climactic sequence set during a massive flood.

The tyro filmmaker’s attempt to blend homespun family drama, intense psychological portrait and full-blown thriller in the final reel results in a tonal mess, although there are moving moments along the way. She’s elicited movingly understated performances from Biehn and Miller as the couple whose marriage becomes strained to the breaking point as a result of Grace’s troubling presence, and such veterans as Piper Laurie and Scott Wilson make vivid contributions in supporting roles. But O’Neal has been encouraged to go over the top in a way that makes the decision to liberate her character seem ill-advised from the get-go, robbing the proceedings of necessary dramatic tension.

Opens: Friday, Dec. 14 (New Films International)
Production: Shane Productions
Cast: Michael Biehn, Tatum O’Neal, Penelope Ann Miller, Piper Laurie, Joel Gretsch, Scott Wilson
Director: Connie Stevens
Screenwriters: Connie Stevens, Jeff Elison
Producers: Connie Stevens, Ralph S. Singleton
Executive producers: Aylin Filiba, Ron Gell, Nesim Hason, Jak Kamhi
Director of photography: Denis Maloney
Editor: Clarinda Wong
Production designer: Robert Hummel
Composer: Peter Golub
Rated R, 116 min.