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SXSW Film Review: ‘For Grace’

A slick and insightful documentary about a master chef in pursuit of excellence — and a path away from his past.

Curtis Duffy, Michael Muser, Ruth Snider.

Official Site: http://schedule.sxsw.com/2015/events/event_FS18159

Up to a certain point in “For Grace,” Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski’s foodie-centric documentary about a Chicago chef’s quest to open and operate the restaurant of his dreams, audiences are likely to be more bemused than moved by the single-minded obsession of its intensely driven subject. But then the filmmakers drop a startling revelation into the mix, instantly ratcheting up the interest level by illuminating the story behind the story of master chef Curtis Duffy’s borderline control-freakish pursuit of excellence. Critics and publicists will be hard-pressed to spread the good word without spilling the beans, but favorable word of mouth by satisfied customers could raise awareness for the film in all platforms.

Right from the start, Duffy comes across as so intensely focused on being all he can be that he has precious little time or passion for anything not related to his burning ambitions. Soft-spoken and tightly wound, the thirtysomething chef is self-effacingly respectful while discussing valued mentors and past employers. But even as Duffy speaks, and is spoken of, in glowing terms, “For Grace” deftly hints that he rarely invests his emotions into his professional relationships. He claims not to remember signing on for a class-action lawsuit against a former boss who underpaid kitchen workers and wait staffers — and appears genuinely shocked when he’s barred at door while attempting to revisit the ex-employer’s restaurant.

As “For Grace” begins, Duffy is making a major move: After working his way up through the some of the finest restaurants in Chicago — including Avenues at the tony Peninsula Chicago Hotel, where he earned four-star reviews for his culinary artistry — he is ready to face the daunting challenge of designing, building, staffing and operating his own fine-dining establishment, which he wants to name Grace.

During the extended pre-opening process — which, not surprisingly, takes longer and costs more money than he originally envisioned — Duffy frequently confabs with partner and confidant Michael Muser, his appreciably earthier and less-buttoned-down close friend. But as he trudges through the process of making his dreams come true, selecting the perfect chairs (costing $1,000 each) and hiring a world-class staff and so on, Duffy neglects — either deliberately or due to distraction — just about everything else. He frankly acknowledges, with a wistful shrug, the recent collapse of his marriage, and his inability to spend more quality time with his two daughters.

Chicago filmmakers Pang and Helenowski evince tact, visual imagination and a sharp eye for emblematic detail while following Duffy’s progress, infusing their well-constructed narrative with an unhurried but elegant momentum that is greatly enhanced by the evocative musical score of the Hudson Branch. What could have been a cut-and-dried, inside-baseball account of birthing a restaurant — or a lightweight snack of a mini-doc suitable for filling an hour on some niche cable channel — is instead an impressively slick and surprisingly captivating piece of work.

But what makes the movie truly compelling is the aforementioned revelation, which Duffy offers while sharing, in a beguilingly even tone, recollections of his hard-scrabble youth. The longer he talks, the more he discloses about a tragedy that may have permanently traumatized him — and almost certainly inspired a lifelong desire to control his destiny and transcend his past.

To be more specific would risk muffling the impact of a scene that is the beating heart of “For Grace,” one that forces us to reconsider much of what we see and hear up to that point, and indelibly colors our response to everything that follows. Suffice to say that when opening night finally arrives, and Grace is every bit the success Duffy hoped for, the triumph seems less important, and much less affecting, than the moment when Duffy greets his guest of honor — Ruth Snider, his middle-school home economics teacher, whose profound influence on young Curtis could be described, without exaggeration, as life-saving.

You need know little about haute cuisine to savor the human drama of “For Grace.”

SXSW Film Review: 'For Grace'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight), March 15, 2015. Running time: 93 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) Produced by Kevin Pang, Mark Helenowski.

Crew: Directed, edited by Kevin Pang, Mark Helenowski. Camera (color, HD), Pang, Helenowski; music, the Hudson Branch; sound, Robert Aguilar.

With: Curtis Duffy, Michael Muser, Ruth Snider.

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