Ruminations: The Critical Response to Gracie

 by Michael D. SellersAs we prepare for the release of Eye of the Dolphin, the Carly Schroeder connection to Gracie has turned this into an interesting and unusual experience for me. I have read, at last count 68 reviews of the film and I saw the film on opening day, yesterday, for the first time. This leaves me thinking about critics and their role, and their predictability.First of all, the final count for Gracie on Rotten Tomatoes is 40 favorable, 28 unfavorable reviews — but then it uses for its headline on the critical concensus: “Undone by its predictable arc and lack of nuance”. Then when you click on that link, this statement is enlarged to: “Gracie can be rousing and touching in spots, but is ultimately undone by its predictable story arc and a lack of nuance.”In reading the reviews, there seem to be two camps: Those who acknowledge that there is value to a film which takes a familiar pattern and makes a fresh pass through familiar territory without abandoning the underpinnings; and those who reject the film completely because it does this. Those who attack it seem to be unaware or unwilling to accept that on some level, people go to movies precisely to have a positive experience in which a life — thrown into disorder at the outset — is re-ordered through perserverance, hard work, belief in a dream, etc. They also seem to assume that every moviegoer is as jaded as they are from watching every film that comes out every week — when in fact most moviegoers pick and choose and go to, on average, half a dozen films a year or less. I’m not saying the critics who object to te sports cliches are all wrong….but I wonder about balance, and I also wonder about how I’m supposed to feel when a critic blasts a film for things which we all recognize are part of the basic recipe of that type of film. Inspiriational sports films all do follow a certain pattern — and it is precisely because they do follow that pattern, and that pattern is reassuring and comforting and “feel-good”, that a certain audience exists for this type of film. When I think about my frame of mind when I went to see any of the memorable sports films from recent times — Miracle, about the US Olympic Hockey Team; Glory Road, about West Texas State’s all-black NCAA basketball championship team; Remember the Titans, etc — I went in with an expectation that there would be adversity, followed by hard work and sacrifice, followed by triumph. And in each case, the film’s delivered on that pattern, I as an audience member was moved, and on a certain level the film worked.That said — sure, it’s even better when a sports film rises above this and handles all these things in a way that is truly unique. I think Bend It Like Beckham, mostly because of the brilliantly observed Indian cultural component, achieved this. And Tin Cup, which is my all-time favorite sports movie precisely because the brilliant ending is both inevitable and totally unexpected (I rate Tin Cup as the best sports movie I’ve seen).Now, Gracie, it strikes me, is somewhat less conventional than Miracle, Glory Road, Remembe the Titans, Rudy, etc. First of all — when have you seen a sports movie that only involves one actual game for the main character? There is a soccer game in the prologue in which Gracie watches her brother play — and there is not another game in the entire movie until the very end. I can’t think of any sports film that does this. It also has certain rougher edges than is typical; the blue collar working class New Jersey of 1978 is evoked particularly well; the main character is more complex and realistic than we usually see in these types of films (ask any parent of a teenage daughter and they’ll agree); and it deviates from the “bog standard sports movie” in other ways, while still retaining the essential elements and it ends up at a place where at the end the audience cheers and weeps — they really do, I witnessed it — and that means the film provides its audience (and I stress, its audience–meaning not all moviegoers just the ones who choose to see this type of movie) with the kind of cathartic viewing experience that movies are all about.My bottom line on Gracie is that if there are 50 standard cliches in sports movies, it avoided about 30 of them and would have been stronger if it could have avoided about 10 more without losing the essential ingredients that make an inspirational sports movie work. There were bits of dialogue that were just too over the top….interactions that were too on the nose…. for this to rise to the level of a brilliant film. But it deserves respect, and it deserves and audience. I hope it finds one.

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~ by Michael Sellers on June 2, 2007.

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