Starring Carly Schroeder, Elisabeth Shue, Andrew Shue, Dermot Mulroney, Hunter Schroeder, Christopher Shand
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Story by: Andrew Shue, Ken Himmelman, Davis Guggenheim
Screenplay by: Lisa Marie Petersen, Karen Janszen
Produced by Davis Guggenheim, Elisabeth Shue, Andrew Shue, Lemore Syvan
Picturehouse, Elevation Filmworks
A Convenient Untruth
In this earnest sports drama, a New Jersey high school student (Carly Schroeder) is devastated when her brother is killed in a car accident. Gracie shares her brother's mad soccer skills, and she is determined to honor his memory by taking his place on their high school team. But this is the late 1970's. Gracie's chauvinist father (Dermot Mulroney) refuses to share his soccer expertise with her as he has with her brothers. She faces a parade of mocking peers and a resistant school. The story of Gracie's fight is conventional, and at times almost comically manipulative, forcing well-worn dramatic scenarios in whether they really fit or not. Still, the girl power theme would be all right if it did not use the character of Gracie's mother (Elisabeth Shue), a nurse, to show that past generations of ambitious women were stuck in dead-end loser jobs. But today, we learn, girls can actually achieve something worthwhile in work and in life. Yay.
"Gracie" is a small-town Caucasian version of last year's "Akeelah and the Bee," with bits of "Whale Rider," "Bend It Like Beckham," and other female empowerment films thrown in. As in the spelling bee story of "Akeelah," here a talented female teen fights stereotypes and a bitter, somewhat defeatist nurse mother--who wanted to be a physician--to realize her dreams of playing with the big boys. With talent and persistence, the lead characters in both films earn the support of demanding father figures who have expertise they need. But just as in "Whale Rider," the chauvinism of Gracie's father at first blinds him to the potential right in front of him.
"Gracie" is loosely based on the real life experience of actress Elisabeth Shue. Shue reportedly really did play soccer on boys teams as a middle schooler in New Jersey, and she did lose her brother, though when she was an adult. The movie is truly a family affair for Shue. Not only does she play the character based on her mother, but the film was directed by her husband Davis Guggenheim (who won an Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth"). Shue and her brother Andrew (who also has a small role) are among the story writers and producers.
The movie is not without appeal, and Schroeder and Mulroney are persuasive. But it tries to do too much, especially in the plot structure and some directorial choices. The film spends a lot of time on Gracie's coming-of-age social struggles, and in case we aren't getting it, repeatedly plays Bruce Springsteen's "Growing Up." When Gracie's father initially won't train her, she rebels, partying and going after the wrong boys. There are some good moments in these scenes, and they do capture some of what it was to be a middle class U.S. teenager in the 1970's. But the film spends so much time on them that it does not have time to credibly develop Gracie's eventual interactions with her soccer team peers. Key elements of the story feel tacked on for easy emotional impact.
Some scenes involving Gracie's mother, the nurse at her daughter's school, are good examples. Speaking at a public school board meeting about whether Gracie will be allowed to try out for the boys soccer team, her mother nearly breaks down, revealing way too much for the context about her deep alienation from her win/lose-oriented family. Of course it's good that she's advocating for her daughter. But this scene seems to have been dropped in so Shue could do some serious acting, and while she is a good actress, it doesn't really work here.
The film uses nursing to represent the sad constraints of Mom's generation. Women like her wanted to have meaningful careers like medicine, but instead had to settle for nursing. The movie sees Gracie's mother's nursing as just a job, and not one that's very fulfilling. After Gracie's father has quit his job as a mover to coach Gracie, her mother bitterly explains that she has had to pick up some shifts at a hospital in order to make up for the shortfall. At another point, we actually see her mother working at school, briefly examining a child who departs without a word. Gracie's mother sits at a desk adorned with bumper stickers reading "School nurses really care" and "School nurses are teachers too." The latter slogan is good, but we see little in the movie to support the idea, and few viewers are likely to focus on it.
In none of these scenes does Shue look like she's doing anything very important, nor does she seem any too pleased to be doing it. On the contrary, nursing seems to be part of her overall frustration that she has ended up as the main parent and breadwinner in a large family full of adversarial soccer nuts. At one point, trying to get Gracie to accept that life just sucks for girls, Mom offers her own mother's cheery dictum that life is a "shit sandwich" and all females have to "take a bite." Mmm. Gracie shoots back: "Is that what you did?"
But all of this might not damage nursing too much if not for one pivotal scene (see the clip in Quicktime broadband or dialup). In this scene, Gracie's mother tries to get her moping daughter to fight to make the team.
Mom: This isn't you...lying around here when you could be fighting back. Tryouts are this Saturday.
Gracie: You don't want me to play.
Mother: Yeah, that's true, I don't. But that's not my choice. (Pause.) Do you know what I wanted to be?
Mother: I wanted to be a surgeon.
Gracie (incredulously): You?
Mother: Um-hmm. I wanted to be in the emergency room. So, uh, now I'm a nurse. That's as close as I could get. So if you want to limit yourself, that's fine. But don't let other people do it for you.
Duly motivated by the fact that she might otherwise be condemned to a life of nursing and other soul-deadening female pursuits, Gracie continues to fight. Of course nursing really was one of the few professions women were allowed to enter for many years. The problem is the assumption that it is therefore low-skilled drudgery that no one with any real options would choose. The script at least resists having Mom say nursing was "as well" she could do--it was just "as close" as she could get to medicine. But the underlying meaning is clear. Mom wanted something important and exciting, but she's "limited" to being a nurse. Naturally, Gracie is surprised that her mother--whose job she presumably regards as little more than menial labor--even dreamed of being a surgeon. (The apparent suggestion that surgeons work in the ED and nurses don't is bizarre, but probably even the film's audience knows that, in the "ER" era.)
Of course, we're not saying this kind of interaction could not have happened. No doubt some nurses in the 1970's did regard their jobs as something they had to settle for, which is especially understandable for women who weren't cut out for it. But most of society still sees the profession that way, as current Hollywood products make clear. This film does nothing to create distance between us and the assumptions about nursing that Gracie and her mother express. Gracie's mother doesn't say, "Nursing just isn't for me," or "It's an important job, I just can't get past that I was excluded from the one I really wanted," or even, "I could make a lot more money if they'd let me be a physician." Nor do we get any other reason to think she might be wrong to regard nursing as limited drudgery. Nursing is just a reliable job that puts food on the table, especially when your husband's problems force you to do even more of it. Every woman has to take a bite.
So few viewers will conclude only that mom was excluded from her first career choice because of her gender, but fortunately Gracie will not be. Most will also conclude that it's sad mom had to be a lowly nurse, and that it's good Gracie will be able to pursue a real profession, like being a surgeon. Gracie's systematic dismantling of an opposing defense at a critical point in the film could easily be described as surgical. Unlike Mom, she's going to make something of herself.
Did Elisabeth Shue and her mother really have this nurse-surgeon interaction? It seems unlikely. Shue's mother reportedly is (or was) a bank executive, and her father was a real estate developer. Presumably the filmmakers felt that they needed to increase the drama with more working class struggle, so Dad works on and off at a moving job he hates, and Mom slogs despairingly through nursing.
The "don't-limit-yourself" scene is not a peripheral one. It advances the main theme in the movie. It also expresses how most of the modern entertainment media feels about the professional progress of women. This media emphasizes that women have succeeded to the extent they have left loser jobs like nursing behind, and that it is critical for any self-respecting, ambitious modern woman to avoid such work (as the makers of "Grey's Anatomy" constantly remind us).
Promotion and reporting on "Gracie" commonly describe the mother as having had to "settle" for being a nurse. And the "don't-limit-yourself" scene itself has been actively used to promote the film. For example, the June 4, 2007 broadcast of CBS's "Early Show with Hannah Storm" included an admiring interview of Elisabeth and Andrew Shue. The one clip shown from the movie was the "don't-limit-yourself" scene. After it finished, the follow exchange occurred:
Hannah Storm: That scene really gives me the chills. it's such a great message about not letting other people define your reality. And it's an important one for girls to hear, don't you think?
Elizabeth Shue: It really is. It really is. Yeah. And I loved the generational part of it. Because you know our moms really didn't get the opportunities that we had. And so we have to know that they struggled and appreciate the opportunities that we have because of them.
It gives me the chills too, not just because it tells girls to empower themselves, but because it tells millions of nurses that their work is inferior drudgery. Aside from bias, this is just lazy thinking: If my options are limited, then whatever they're limited to is inherently bad and must be rejected. Of course, it's not entirely irrational to assume that if an oppressed group is confined to a few specific jobs, none of those jobs is very important or worthwhile. Not irrational; just wrong, and damaging to global health.
The makers of "Gracie" seem to have been blinded by the light of women's liberation.
Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed June 29, 2007
c/o Josh Lieberman
Creative Artists Agency
2000 Avenue Of The Stars
Los Angeles, CA 90067
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