The things that happen to us do not always belong to us. Sometimes they are parts of someone else’s story — our heartbreaks, our illnesses, our sudden, dumb-luck accidental deaths all might actually be the property of other people, at least partially. It’s an esoteric point, perhaps, on which to build a career, but director Sue Brooks appears preternaturally interested in this notion. It turned out to be pivotal to her 2003 film, the simple but resonant “Japanese Story,” in which, following the death of her unacknowledged married lover, Toni Collette rails “But I was there too! It happened to me too.” And it also informs the more sprawling, looser structure of her latest “Looking For Grace,” writ large by the division of the film into chapters, headed “Denise’s Story,” “Dan’s Story” and so on. Which event, over the course of several days and nights, to “file” under whose story, since they are all closely interconnected and happen over roughly the same span of time, seems to be the chief way Brooks is attempting to shape her film, and theoretically that’s an interesting experiment that should draw thematic lines of causality, guilt and blame that might otherwise not be clear. But while ostensibly the idea of illuminating the central story by floodlighting it from different angles is an intriguing one, the story it comes to reveal turns out to be dishearteningly ordinary and not a little reliant on some rather melodramatic turns. While intermittently engaging (depending a lot on whose story we are in), “Looking for Grace” suffers from unevenness and lack of focus, and all the chopped-up chronology and teasing perspective shifts in the world cannot conceal the Aussie daytime soap-nature of the storyline.
Initially, however, when we’re in “Grace’s Story” the film looks set to deliver on its promise, offering up a well-observed and nicely performed tale of middle-class teen rebellion. Grace (Odessa Young) and her friend Saph (Kenya Pearson) are on an initially unexplained bus journey; flushed and giggly they thrash their manes to metal music playing tinnily through their headphones. In impressionist slices, we track the alternate boredom and mania of a long bus journey, and a growing flirtation between Grace and a cute fellow passenger, much to fifth wheel Saph’s annoyance. But just when we’ve invested in the peculiar, slightly withholding nature of the storytelling (what is in Grace’s bag that Saph wants nothing to do with? Where are they heading? Why are they unsupervised?) and followed Grace through an eventful day and night after Saph leaves, we cut abruptly to the stories of Grace’s mother Denise (Radha Mitchell), her father Dan (Richard Roxburgh), an ageing private investigator Norris (Terry Norris) and a seemingly random truck driver Bruce (Myles Pollard). Some of these segments are longer than others, some more involved, but tonally they’re less assured than that first slice, and cumulatively they work to demystify the enigmatic and elusively interesting opening. What was intriguingly withheld, eventually has all its gaps filled in to become disappointingly prosaic.
Grace, if the title hasn’t already suggested as much, is a runaway, who has stolen some money from her parents’ safe in order to attend a rock concert with her friend. But all her mother knows is that she is gone, the bedroom safe is empty and her husband is not picking up his phone. The latter is because Dan, who runs a furniture showroom, is attempting at that very moment to consummate a long-held workplace flirtation in a fancy hotel. He will only find out about Grace later on, and then about the money gone from the safe — about which he is prickly and defensive anyway, implying heavily that it was money, running to several thousands of dollars, that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. They bring in the police and the investigator Norris, and when they receive a tip that Grace and Saph wanted to attend this concert, they set off on the cross-country trip to find them.
It’s a trip that reveals a lot about the nature of Dan and Denise’s bickery marriage, with Mitchell playing Denise as a rather peevish, houseproud wife-and-mother who despite having her own segment remains frustatingly thinly drawn. Roxburgh doesn’t fare much better: Dan’s early attempted infidelity feels almost played for laughs as he prevaricates and dithers while the object of his affections gets progressively more turned-off and disdainful. It is hard to read these characters as anything more than sitcom-level stereotypes, bumbling around in a light farce — an impression given further weight by the dubious inclusion of the stock character of a nosy, tactless receptionist, whose faux-concern over Grace’s absence is expressed in ridiculous statements about whether it would be preferable that the girl turn up murdered or raped. But while all these performances feel of a piece, they sit dramatically at odds with Grace’s sections, and even with those of Norris — notionally an interesting character who is given little to do save be a sounding board for this dysfunctional family’s squabbling. And they leave us altogether unprepared for the turn the film takes in its final moments, when it turns abruptly into a melodrama and we realize that we’re supposed to have come to care for these unlikeable, shallow characters.
This final twist of fate/coup de grace (!) may feel unearned in the moment, but it actually works to reorient the film back into something like the same bittersweet observational drama groove it had started off in. And tellingly Grace is present for it too so it’s almost possible to discern what the film could have been without all its unnecessary and underwritten flourishes: a straightforward coming of age tale. It might have lacked this film’s ambition, and delivered a much simpler story, but simplicity would have been a great virtue here where so much is unnecessarily complicated. And when Brooks was on to a good thing with Odessa Young’s natural performance that is, despite all the teen angst trappings, somehow more deeply felt than those of the adults trying to track her down. It is a shame we get diverted from her point of view so often into such unconvincing territories, because it is really only when we’re with Grace, and when the things that happen are happening to her, that we find any of the grace that Brooks is looking for. [C+]