Fantasia Fest 2009:Not So Amazing ‘Grace’

20 Aug

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Grace (R)  85 min. Written and Directed by: Paul Solet. Starring: Jodan Ladd, Gabrielle Rose, Samantha Ferris, Malcolm Stewart.  Cinematography: Zoran Popovic Original Music by: Austin Wintory

cinemagrade c I was initially very wary about Paul Solet’s Grace, a Canadian horror feature about a newborn who prefers human blood to mother’s milk. My wife and I were planning to take in a film together, and while I wasn’t too concerned about the content for myself, I know she’s a bit more sensitive and this particular subject matter was probably a tightrope walk for her anyway. On the internet, critical consensus seemed to be that the film was mucho disturbing and in some cases straight-out disgusting and in bad taste. Expecting mothers were warned away from it, and some festival reports cited people fleeing the theater.

      We almost skipped Grace, but in the end we were intrigued by the possibility of a thoughtful and compelling horror flick. As it turns out, we were surprised on both counts; Grace isn’t significantly more gory or disturbing than your average genre entry and it isn’t any more substantial either. In the end, it has some great elements and a solid premise but all it delivers is a frustrating bore.

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It starts well enough, with Madeline Matheson ( Jordan Ladd from Death Proof) and her husband expecting a baby. This is a big deal for the young couple because their previous two attempts resulted in miscarriages. Madeline is so excited and invested in the baby’s welfare that she wants all of the details of the birth to be perfect. Dodging disapproval from her overbearing beast of a mother-in-law, Maddie finds a midwife at a natural birthing center and plans for her baby’s arrival. On the way to the center, after a rather bad bout of contractions, the Matheson’s car is hit by a truck in a serious accident and Madeline loses both her husband and the baby. Or rather, the baby is dead but she makes a decision to carry it to term anyway.

The early passages of the movie are well-shot and directed, with an acting style that reminded me of an older breed of thriller; something from the early days of Romero, Polanski or even Cronenberg. The cinematography of Zoran Popovic has a beautiful, hazy sheen to it, and there is a certain maternal glow to Ladd that visualizes her internal need to have and care for a baby.  

I liked the way the movie sufficiently sets up the birthing clinic and its lead practitioner, Dr. Lang.  It’s also refreshing that included in these scenes are the couple’s conversation as they make a decision regarding the birth. Little details about the family dynamics between Madeline, Michael and Michael’s mother Vivian help sketch out the limitations and frustrations of the younger couples marriage. Everything here suggests that Grace is aiming to be more Rosemary’s Baby and less It’s Alive.

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After the car accident, and the tragic loss of Michael and the baby, the film starts down a darker and more somber path. I felt genuinely uncomfortable and saddened by Maddie’s ordeal and wanted the film to skip over the birth scene. However, it’s this very scene that ends up being the film’s one moment of true power and inspiration. Madeline gives birth, and just lies there in the birthing pool holding her baby’s cold, bloody body and nestling it close to her. She clutches it to her body, and with her eyes closed she looks as if she is trying to will it to life via the depth of her love and desire. It’s a futile and starkly real scene. There isn’t a hint of artificiality in it, and to me that was impressive. When the dead baby actually starts to move in its mother’s arms, I got chills. There is something very simple and emotionally genuine in the relief and gratitude that flood over Ladd’s face in this scene. She names the baby Grace, and it makes perfect sense. She is a miracle.

And more or less, that’s the last time the movie does anything significantly interesting. Madeline takes Grace home and begins to notice some strange things; the baby smells more than your average toddler, and flies cling to the rails of her crib as if they are miniature versions of the birds from the Hitchcock film.  When Maddie finally offers her breast to the hungry baby, it vomits up its mother’s milk and begins drawing blood from the nipple instead. And so grateful is Madeline for her little miracle that she never questions any of this or tries to take the baby to the hospital. She just soldiers on, trying to give the child what it needs.

There are some unsavory moments to be sure in this midsection of the film, and it’s here that Solet stops using his imagination and starts aiming for the sensationalist gross-out moments he thinks the audience wants. The problem is that while a significant amount of blood and fluids get thrown around, the plot stops really moving forward. We get it, Grace is not natural, and while her nature might not be evil, her dietary requirements might drive her mother to commit acts of evil. While Maddie slowly becomes unhinged by her cloistered lifestyle and the growing, alien nature of her beloved daughter the story switches over to Victoria.

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Broken by the loss of her son, Victoria is more screwed up than Madeline. She seemingly wants a child too, and without an adult boy to smother with affection and concern she goes gunning for her grandchild. Scenes where she uses an antique pump to produce smilk from her sagging breasts are way more disturbing and unsettling than anything little Grace does. There is also the problem that introducing Victoria as the third major component of the story forces the narrative into a predictable path and takes away time from fleshing out Madeline and her predicament.

The intent of Grace is to tell a serious dramatic story about the depth of love and devotion a mother has for a child, and how much one will sacrifice for the other. I wish this movie were that one, but it doesn’t know how to get there exactly. Little Grace isn’t depicted as a hell-spawn, and once you get beyond the blood thing, she’s just about as boring as a regular baby. Madeline’s is the story at the heart of the movie, but the filmmakers keep moving away from her and no emotional immediacy is established.

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Instead of being horrified by the situation, I grew restless and eventually bored as the movie started to repeat itself. Once Maddie knows about the parameters of her daughter’s condition, I wanted to see her actually deal with it; both practically and emotionally. Instead, each time little Grace drinks blood, you would assume this is the first time her mother is seeing it.

I suspect the extreme reactions to this film have more do to with the chosen subject matter (expecting mothers and infants are always touchy areas when it comes to violence and nastiness) than the actual events in the film. I can’t stomach torture or similar vileness for the sake of itself, and Grace is a far cry from that sort of thing. However, it still ends up feeling cheap and crass when it wants to be compelling and classy. Grace itself feels a lot like the process of having a baby. There is a great deal of care, planning and anticipation in the early going, but when it comes down to the big moment, everything’s one big, bloody, screaming mess.

 

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2 Responses to “Fantasia Fest 2009:Not So Amazing ‘Grace’”

  1. hagiblog August 24, 2009 at 6:08 pm #

    I really think the movie showed just how far a mother would go for her child and that’s exactly why we’re given Victoria as another major character. Her and Maddie are the two mothers of the film, each at different points in their life, one dealing with the loss of a child and one with a child who’s just not like others.

    Victoria also plays a huge part in the end of the film and is the start of a new journey for Maddie. There’s only so much you can do with a movie about a baby who drinks blood. Once you’ve shown the mother giving so much of herself, what do you do? The baby is still just a baby and doesn’t present any new problems to deal with. It’s the shot at the end that really shows what Maddie will do for her daughter and man would I love to see that movie! HAHA!

  2. Bartleby August 29, 2009 at 12:17 am #

    I agree thats why Victoria was included, and I know thats what the movie was attempting to say, and I guess in a sense, said….BUT I just didn’t find it very interesting. I think the execution was the problem.

    My wife and I were listening to several collections of short stories on audio during our vacation, and it dawns on me that if Grace were a short story it would work so much better. There would be plenty of internal elaboration for Maddie and Victoria, and it would work psychologically. It also wouldn’t matter that Grace herself isn’t really a monster or significantly active in the film’s story, but rather more of a macguffin; the source of dread, longing and affection for the other characters.

    Here, if you didn’t just take the bond for granted–instead of waiting for either the director or Ladd to make it real for us–I think some of the film’s power was dilluted.

    It certainly wasn’t a bad film, but with something that showed so much potential in the early going, I was surprised how much the later sections fell flat.

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