A respectable but hardly vital follow-up by the twosome behind the stunning "Mean Creek," "Nearing Grace" could be mistaken for any number of quality but bland coming-of-age dramedies.
Viewed from another angle, Jacob Aaron Estes’ script (adapting Scott Sommers’ 1979 novel, “Nearing’s Grace”) operates in almost direct counterpoint to his work for “Mean Creek,” which spilled over with honest angst and exhibited a striking grasp for the way teens would respond to terrible tragedy and moral dilemma.
The teens this time resemble only those processed through TV’s feel-good filter.
In 1978 New Jersey, high schooler Henry Nearing (Smith) is first seen delivering a eulogy for his mother, but the serious tone gives way to a ridiculous and ineptly staged plane ride to scatter mom’s ashes.
Six months later, dad Shep (David Morse) hasn’t gotten over his loss, and seems prone to juvenile stunts like riding around town on his motorcycle and screaming his head off.
Henry’s judgment isn’t much better: Unable to see that longtime gal pal Merna (Johnson) is a natural match for his thoughtful, solitary soul, he gets hot and bothered for cool, sexy Grace Chance (Jordana Brewster). Born to tease innocent boys, Grace strings Henry along with a series of dates, flirtations and dalliances in the woods, but never appears remotely serious about him.
Chasm between audience perception and what this laconic youngster can’t see grows from intriguing to bothersome, since Henry, far from dumb, is the only family member carrying his weight.
Merna tries to hide her feelings for Henry by taking up with older college music student Tripp (Logan Bartholomew), but it’s a blatant attempt to delay the inevitable. Much of watching “Nearing Grace” amounts to a waiting game for Henry and Merna to finally, finally hook up — which they do in an overwritten, too-cute finale.
Without Smith’s graceful presence, which more than once resembles Zach Braff’s slightly older but observant New Jerseyite in “Garden State,” “Nearing Grace” would be pure video fodder. As it is, he gives the story what emotional density it has, and when he and the adorable Johnson trade quips and looks with each other, there’s the promise of star appeal. Brewster is typecast as the other girl with a whiff of danger about her, while Morse suggests a far more interesting widower than he has time to explore on screen.
In line with the vanilla storytelling, director Rick Rosenthal (who produced “Mean Creek”) helms with old-fashioned, if uninteresting efficiency.Period detail is apt, as are music selections.