“Gracie” is the sort of formulaic, feel-good sports drama that requires collaborators on either side of the camera to be at the absolute top of their game to score any kind of impact. Unfortunately, this modestly engaging but thoroughly predictable Picturehouse release appears hopelessly outmatched by bigger and better-hyped competitors in the summer B.O. sweepstakes. Playoff potential may be brighter in the homevid arena if favorable word of mouth spreads.
Pic is something of a family affair, co-produced by helmer Davis Guggenheim — director of the Oscar-winning docu “An Inconvenient Truth” — with his actress wife, Elisabeth Shue, and actor brother-in-law, Andrew Shue. (Indie vet Lemore Syvan also shares producing credit.) The script by Lisa Marie Petersen and Karen Janszen is loosely based on a real-life tragedy — specifically, the accidental death of William Shue, brother of Elisabeth and Andrew (and executive producer John Shue) — but the film focuses primarily on an eponymous protagonist modeled after Elisabeth, who’s effectively cast as the character’s mother.
Despite all the factual underpinning, most of “Gracie” plays like conventional Hollywood-style contrivance. In 1978 South Orange, N.J., 15-year-old Gracie Bowen (Carly Schroeder) must overcome sexist mindsets, hidebound bureaucracy and — initially, at least — unsupportive parents as she sets out to replace her late brother on her high school varsity soccer team. Only auds not exposed to similar inspirational sports scenarios will doubt for a second that she’ll eventually succeed.
On the plus side, up-and-comer Schroeder makes a winning impression as Gracie, a working-class rebel who tries to become a team player after her beloved brother Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer) — a star athlete coached by his proud father — dies in an auto accident. Thesp persuasively conveys her character’s innate seriousness of purpose even when she’s acting out, talking back and risking her virginity by vamping “older” (i.e., college-age) guys. Latter activity, though emotionally and dramatically credible, may unsettle some parents who’d otherwise consider the pic as family-friendly entertainment.
At first, Bryan Bowen (Dermot Mulroney) refuses to train his daughter. He claims, unreasonably, that Gracie simply isn’t tough enough to play with the boys. Lindsay (Elisabeth Shue), the teen’s tradition-bound mom, attempts to douse Gracie’s nascent feminism. (“Not everything is possible,” Lindsay not-so-helpfully warns.) Even Jena (scene-stealing Julia Garro), Gracie’s guy-crazy best friend, is outspokenly discouraging, noting that femme athletes their age are widely viewed as “lesbos.”
In the end, of course, everyone, even crusty Coach Colasanti (John Doman, who uncovers kernels of truth in a cliched role), becomes a believer just in time for Gracie to take part in a climactic match, a game that has at least a patina of verisimilitude thanks to soccer choreographer Dan Metcalfe. Mulroney is surprisingly affecting as he charts his character’s gradual change of heart.
Lenser Chris Manley, production designer Dina Goldman and costumer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward are most valuable players when it comes to sustaining period ambiance. Indeed, there are some scenes early on that actually look like they were excerpted from a pic produced during the Polyester Era. Soundtrack includes aptly chosen ’70s pop tunes, with Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” imaginatively employed to underscore Gracie’s grueling training regimen.
Closing credits, which proclaim “Gracie” is “a carbon neutral production,” suggest director Guggenheim took Al Gore’s green message to heart.