Like the sexually awakening teen girl at its center, “A Girl Like Grace” comes on strong but lacks the experience or perspective to fully convince. Filmmaker Ty Hodges’ coming-of-age drama has some novelty in that its female protagonist is Haitian-American, but pic is hobbled by a needlessly fractured narrative and muddled messaging. It may ultimately prove most notable for introducing leading lady Ryan Destiny, a thesp worth keeping an eye on.
Grace (Destiny) lives with her trainwreck of a mother Lisa (Garcelle Beauvais) in a Mississippi trailer park and feels like an outcast at school, where she’s taunted by the ringleader (Raven-Symone) of a mean-girls clique and mourns the recent loss of best friend Andrea (Paige Hurd) to suicide. The exact circumstances surrounding Andrea’s death are presented as a mystery the film slowly unravels with the arrival of her alluring older sister Share (Meagan Good), who takes Grace under her wing and encourages the 17-year-old to embrace her sexuality.
While the screenplay (co-written by Hodges and Jacquin Deleon) initially teases the idea that Grace and Andrea may have been more than just platonic pals, there’s something at once more conventional and less complex motivating Grace’s sullen behavior at school. After the truth comes out, so to speak, the film devolves into a dispiriting string of hook-ups, eventually derailing completely by falling into the hoary old trap of a young woman’s sexual exploration leading to exploitation and assault.
That the film transcends its cliches at all is due entirely to Destiny’s committed lead turn. Though she’s mostly asked to play variations on meek, pouty or sultry, the effortlessly charismatic star not only stands out among her more seasoned colleagues but also hints at an inner life the film seems too distracted to explore.
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With its social-pariah lead, themes of sexual abuse and financial hardship, voiceover narration, and performers eager to look less than glam on camera, Hodges’ overstuffed pic seems to be aiming for something akin to Lee Daniels’ “Precious.” The result winds up closer to a production for teen-centric cabler ABC Family, as everything from casting choices to narrative shortcuts undermine any attempted authenticity or cinematic poetry.
Tech credits are run-of-the-mill for a lower-budget work, but d.p. Teddy Smith makes a concerted effort to keep the film visually playful even when the storytelling falls flat. In that respect, the film perfectly encapsulates one of Grace’s self-empowerment platitudes: “If you’re beautiful with no soul, are you even living?”