For a metaphysical love-conquers-all tale, “Grace and Grit” offers very little substance around such lofty concepts as existence, spirituality and romantic harmony. Written and directed by actor-turned-helmer Sebastian Siegel in an adaptation of famous philosopher Ken Wilber’s much admired book, the film unfortunately anchors itself in an exploitative mode, insincerely using terminal illness as inspirational fodder.
The real-life saga of a doting couple and their demanding, gradually more harrowing experience with cancer, “Grace and Grit” isn’t the viscerally rousing picture that it thinks it is. Through an overstretched running time and repetitive emotional cues that overstay their welcome, this amateurish exercise falls short of even selling the essentials of the immensely accessible melodrama at its heart, the film’s easiest task.
It sadly feels like Siegel left gaping holes when transposing to screen the truth and the lived-in authenticity of Wilber’s book that has reportedly touched so many lives (his own included). Increasingly, “Grace and Grit” comes across less as a genuine picture, and more as an awkward experiment on memory that liberally imitates the otherworldly “The Tree of Life” palette on the cheap, so much that it seems the entire movie was shot during the magic hour with an annoyingly overdone visual mandate to utilize glimmering lens flares as much as possible.
After a brief and confusingly incomplete scene used as a framing device — Treya Wilber (a committed yet unremarkable Mena Suvari) addresses a crowd somewhere and begins telling her personal story of love and loyalty in the 1980s — the movie’s problems surface promptly. The film flashes back to the earlier part of that decade to show Treya meeting the famed academician, writer and philosopher Ken Wilber (Stuart Townsend, overacting), someone described as “the Einstein of consciousness” in his field. The duo falls madly in love quickly, but we don’t get to understand why or how without any real introduction to either of them, an oversight worsened by a severe lack of chemistry between Suvari and Townsend.
Treya calls their mutual attraction “love at first touch,” as the duo share an impromptu embrace during a dinner party at a friend’s home. (Inexplicably, an abstract, out-of-place, animated sex scene takes over the screen in this moment.) As chronicled in Wilber’s book, she writes in her journal that she feels she already knows this perfect man. Meanwhile Ken thinks of her as the most amazing woman on the planet with radiating energy, someone he’s been searching for his whole life. They get married after only four short months of knowing each other, but Treya’s breast cancer diagnosis casts a shadow over their honeymoon, and then, their entire marriage of just a few short years until Treya’s passing.
It is palpable that Siegel embarked on the project with the best of intentions at heart and tries to honor the duo’s remarkable story of bravery with respect. But he expects too much from his audience in the process, assuming that everyone already knows these people and their careers in intimate detail. It is in fact quite astonishing that those who are unfamiliar with Wilber’s work prior to watching this film will be no closer to understanding his viewpoints on life (crucial to the manner in which he navigated the lows and rock-bottoms of his wife’s illness) after sitting through “Grace and Grit.” No fewer than two times, we hear Treya’s mom (Frances Fisher) voice her concerns about Ken’s words and books — if only we could grasp the source of her worries. It is never a good sign when you want to pause a movie for a brief Wikipedia visit in search of the basics.
Had Siegel crafted something more transparent about what these individuals are made of without each other, perhaps then he could have won his audience’s investment in the couple’s joint narrative that spans both U.S. and Germany, as Treya goes from treatment to treatment, most of them unsuccessful. But instead, the writer-director evidently assumes that the words “based on a true story” buys “Grace and Grit” automatic credibility that frees it from foundational necessities like character development.
And part of that might still have been excusable if the movie wasn’t so staccato and disjointed on the whole, often reluctant to give viewers a full and shrewdly fleshed out scene. Indeed, save for a doctor’s visit here or a conversation there, most of “Grace and Grit” consists of bite-sized, fragmented thoughts and feelings stitched together, with a screeching, over-melodramatic score of strings and human cords and excessive voiceover amplifying the schmaltz. So when a truly dramatic scene that feels complete finally arrives — both on edge, the worn-out Ken and the aggressively dispirited Treya break into a fight — you welcome it with open arms, despite some poor writing and questionable-at-best acting. It’s an exhausting movie, unworthy of this courageous couple’s remarkable resilience.