The most remarkable aspect of “Saving Grace B. Jones,” beyond its inadvertent homage to Ed Wood, is its helmer, Connie Stevens, onetime star of TV’s “Hawaiian Eye,” pre-Beatles recording artist and one of the leading smallscreen sex symbols of the ’60s. “Inspired” by an episode from the director’s 1950s childhood — a trauma that prompted her family to ship her from “the brown streets of Brooklyn” to a Missouri home inhabited by a madwoman — it portrays a time very different from ours, one unencumbered by the niceties of social services and child psychologists. Crowds will be thin.
Young Carrie Staley (Rylee Fansler, lovely) is taking the bus home from a Brooklyn movie house one night and witnesses a vicious murder right outside her window. As police officers wave away the busload of witnesses, Carrie doesn’t seem particularly distraught. But her trauma is apparently grave enough that her unseen parents see fit to ship her to stay with family in the normally bucolic Midwest, where the story proper begins, with Carrie a fly-on-the-wall witness.
There, record rains are swelling the Missouri River to life-threatening levels, and Carrie’s host, Landy Bretthorst (Michael Biehn), has decided that this would be a good time to spring his sister Grace (Tatum O’Neal) from the asylum — ignoring the advice of the institution’s director, the curiously named Marta Shrank (played by a delicious Piper Laurie, suggesting Carrie’s name is no accident). Shrank gives the audience just a hint of “Twin Peaks”-style craziness, raising the hope that “Saving Grace B. Jones” may turn out to be a demonically perverse kind of Lifetime movie as envisioned by, say, Bunuel. Alas, this is not to be.
Grace is a sympathetic figure, a kind of Miss Havisham, had Dickens’ character been an ill-educated Southerner: The victim of a horrendous car wreck on the day of her wedding, Grace subsequently lost her mind and was committed to the kind of “health” facility where, as even Shrank admits, patients never leave. But Landy, supported by his faithful wife, Bea (Penelope Ann Miller), insists that Grace come home, even though it’s clear that Landy has no grasp of Grace’s illness, and has made no preparations for introducing her back into society. It doesn’t help that this is a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business; the Bretthorsts live right across the street from Grace’s ex-fiance (Joel Gretsch) and his pregnant wife (Tricia Leigh Fisher), whose condition accelerates Grace’s already flourishing mania.
There’s a trace of classical tragedy to the script (written by Stevens and Jeffry Ellis); Landy’s hubris lies in his blind ignorance of all good advice, and he lives to rue the day. The film also has something to say about mental health: “You’ve still got a chance if you just get a hold of yourself,” Bea tells Grace, revealing an utter lack of understanding, but one that was probably more common than not in 1951. Yet most of what Stevens has concocted here is hard to take, notably the characters’ curious relationship with the rain that threatens to drown Missouri, and serves as a soggy metaphor. Sometimes it only rains in half the frame; sometimes people coming out of downpours are wet, sometimes they’re not; sometimes they’re wet and it’s not raining.
Tech credits are otherwise adequate. Peter Golub’s original music is evocative, but the found-music cues are bewildering at times, and the editing seems to have been a struggle.