Los Angeles Film Festival
While aspects of the story seem familiar, as coming-of-age stories often do, the richness of the characters and themes in Nearing Grace
inspire director Rick Rosenthal and his cast to create a film with terrific emotional energy and larkish humor. One of the pleasant surprises of the current Los Angeles Film Festival, Nearing Grace
is that rare independent film that clearly was made outside of Hollywood without sacrificing the professional sheen Hollywood gives to a movie.
The film is tailor-made for a studio classics division: It makes a nice crossover between a date movie for young people and a nostalgic period film for older adults.
At the top of the list of things the filmmakers did right is casting Gregory Smith, a young actor perhaps best known for his role on the WB Network series Everwood
, in the lead role of Henry Nearing. Smith establishes an intimacy with his audience, making transparent his character's raw feelings even as he hides them from other characters behind a wall of irony and reticence.
Supporting this potential break-out performance are superb turns by Ashley Johnson, as a neighbor whose fondness for Henry completely escapes his notice; Jordana Brewster
as the school vamp to whom Henry is irresistibly drawn; and David Morse as a father at the end of his emotional rope.
Jacob Aaron Estes, screenwriter-director of last year's low-budget critical hit Mean Creek
, wrote the screen adaptation of Scott Sommer
's novel Nearing's Grace
. (Notice the subtle change in the title.) The writing is witty and insightful, creating in each of the four main characters a strong individual with strong points of view.
The crux of the matter is the Nearing family's loss of its female leader. Rose, wife to Shep (Morse) and mom to Henry and Blair (David Moscow
), died six months before. The time is the late '70s, when lifestyles and sexuality were undergoing tremendous change in American society. Rose's death removes the anchor to this suburban New Jersey family, letting each member drift into those swift-moving social currents.
Dad quits his teaching job, grows his hair long, rides his bike around town and drinks himself senseless most nights. Blair splits, taking off with a hippie girlfriend in search of acid and experiences, some of which he might even remember. Henry changes the least outwardly; but inside, his life is in free-fall.
Even if his mother hadn't died, Henry probably would have developed a strong attraction to the bewitching Grace (Brewster). But his pursuit of her becomes an obsession that a female role model might have prevented.
Grace has a boyfriend in lacrosse champ Lance (Chad Faust
). But she also loves to tease boys, and Henry becomes her latest victim. Henry's best gal pal Merna Ash (Johnson) drops hints of her interest in him, but Grace has blinded him to any other female.
Henry drops out of school a month short of graduation. He retreats to the basement to, as he says, contemplate the "meaning of life." He might even discover at least one of its meanings when he realizes that wanting something is not the same thing as needing something.
Smith makes a lively and ingratiating protagonist even while making his gravest mistakes. Brewster has sexual allure as the serial seductress but makes us understand the boredom and disappointment that underlines her behavior. Johnson is a revelation: The actress is an unconventional beauty with the resources to suggest the longings and maturity of a young woman wise beyond her years.
Morse, one of our best character actors, here portrays a man unapologetic about falling apart over his wife's death. Only Moscow's brother is poorly realized, dropping out for most of the movie, then popping up without much introduction and little to do.
The film has pros in all areas behind the camera, so the sterling look of the film, actually shot in Portland, Ore., belies its modest budget.
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Screenwriter: Jacob Aaron Estes
Based on the novel by: Scott Sommer
Producers: Rick Rosenthal, Susan Johnson
, Tracy Underwood
Executive producers: John Wells, Nancy Stephens
Director of photography: David Geddes
Production designer: Mark Zuelzke
Music: John Nordstrom
Co-producers: Laura Holstein
, Jacob Mosler
Costumes: Cynthia Morrill
Editor: Madeleine Gavin
Henry Nearing: Gregory Smith
Grace: Jordana Brewster
Merna: Ashley Johnson
Shep: David Morse
Blair Nearing: David Moscow
Lance: Chad Faust
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 106 minutes