“How we make sense of the mess of our lives and what it all means,” is how an official synopsis describes the subject of fragmented Australian family drama “Looking for Grace.” That’s a tall order for any film, surely, not least one as modestly scaled as Sue Brooks’ diverting but slightly disappointing fifth feature. Reprising some of the gentle existential concerns raised in her outstanding broken-backed romance “Japanese Story,” Brooks’ latest begins in a promisingly melancholic key, as the teenaged Grace of the title retreats into the Outback after mysteriously leaving home. As the splintered, overlapping narrative expands to include the interior crises of her parents, however, “Grace” morphs less confidently into a brittle suburban satire. The film’s tone — to say nothing of what it all means — remains elusive to the end.
Thanks to a Cannes Un Certain Regard slot and the relative name casting of a peak-form Toni Collette, “Japanese Story” became the most widely distributed film of Brooks’ career in 2003 — though that exposure counted for little when it came to the helmer’s 2009 follow-up “Subdivision,” a lightweight comedy that didn’t surface outside its homeland. Following its not-entirely-expected inclusion in the Venice competish, “Looking for Grace” should fall somewhere in between: It’s attractive and accessible, but too circuitously low-key for widespread arthouse attention. While Radha Mitchell is always a welcome presence in a leading role, the pic doesn’t afford her (or any of her hard-working co-stars) a Collette-scale showcase.
In a structural conceit that doesn’t feel completely realized, the narrative is divided into separate but intersecting “stories” belonging to different characters — each one granted an onscreen chapter heading, even as they vary considerably in length and consequentiality. (One character’s chapter lasts but a couple of minutes; others constitute entire dramatic acts.) In theory, their conflicting perspectives color and complicate each other with hindsight; in practice, certain characters’ points of view are so opaque that they can’t exactly be opened up through others’ eyes. As in “Japanese Story,” events are driven by a certain wistful sense of fatalism, buffeted by acts of unforeseeable chance, though the cumulative emotional payoff of these delicately dangling strands is wry rather than wrenching.
First up, Grace’s story reps by far the film’s most intriguing, sensually evocative stretch, introducing smart, adventurous highschooler Grace (Odessa Young, a bright ensemble standout) and her more reticent best friend Sappho (Kenya Pearson) on a long-distance bus trip through flattest Western Australia. It gradually emerges that they’re on the run, having just escaped their respective comfortable homes with a large sum of money stolen from the safe of Grace’s parents. On the journey, they meet cute, charismatic Jamie (Harry Richardson), with whom Grace strikes an instant romantic spark. All too aware of her gooseberry status, Sappho decides to head home; Grace’s own path takes an unexpected kink, meanwhile, leaving her adrift in the back of beyond.
The girls claim they’re running away to a see a beloved rock band perform in a distant town, though there seems a more deep-seated, heartsick reason behind their uncharacteristically reckless decision. We get an indirect sense of what that may be as we pass through the stories of Grace’s parents Denise (Mitchell) and Dan (Richard Roxburgh), two bored, disconsolate suburbanites who appear to pay more attention to the steam-cleaning of their couch than the psychological well-being of their daughter. Brooks defines these stifled lives in rigid, pitilessly parodic strokes, with an assist from Clayton Jauncey’s spartan, beige-upon-beige production design: They appear to exist in an entirely different dimension from their daughter’s softer, more sense-driven experience of the world. Mitchell and Roxburgh, meanwhile, oblige with amusingly tetchy performances, drawing out the inadvertent comedy in their characters’ middle-class Aussie vernacular — though the irony can feel a bit cheap, like “Fargo” by way of “Home and Away.”
Two outside parties are also granted individual “story” rights: Tom (Terry Norris), a kindly retired P.I. who assists Denise and Dan in the search for their daughter, and more perplexingly, Bruce (Myles Pollard), a truck driver whose vignette (less a story than a shorthand character sketch) has no bearing on the remaining narrative until an eleventh-hour intervention. There is no grand, unifying epiphany to be gained once the architecture of the film has been completely revealed, which is probably for the best. Despite the symbolic threat of the title, Brooks’ script doesn’t strenuously articulate how each individual character seeks a grace of their own. Even as its tone circles back to aching naturalism, there’s something tenuous about the pic’s tender resolution — not to mention a teasing sense that more interesting untold stories (Sappho’s, in particular) might lie on the untold fringes.
Tech contributions are suitably tasteful and understated, with Katie Milwright’s sharp, clear-skied lensing giving the characters ample room to breathe. Elizabeth Drake’s score is especially striking, marrying clean, ruminative piano chords with ambient hints of more indigenous instrumentation.