"Nearing Grace": Coming-of-age pining for the wrong girl
Special to The Seattle Times
Screenwriter Jacob Aaron Estes based this undistinguished coming-of-age memoir on a 1979 young-adult novel of nearly the same name. But apart from a likable young lead, this whitewashed exercise is a little too green for the evergreen genre and too much like TV — albeit with more drugs and teen sex — to achieve the dynamic soul of the authentic indie artwork it craves.
Curiously, Estes' treatment of the material is a far cry from his 2004 original effort as writer/director of "Mean Creek." Filled with the natural spark of real kids caught up in a dangerous world that turns horrific, "Mean Creek" had all of the spontaneous snap in dialogue and characterization that "Nearing Grace" lacks.
Granted, the childlike lightness of "Nearing Grace" — as it follows angst-ridden high-school senior Henry Nearing (Gregory Smith) wooing the wrong girl while the right one is staring him in the face — is light years away from the disturbing adult world populated by the children of "Mean Creek." But it's a surprise this movie came from the same creative team (director Rick Rosenthal produced "Mean Creek").
Henry is smitten with popular bad girl Grace Chance (Jordana Brewster), who has a serious boyfriend (Chad Faust) but likes to tease. We can all see that wallflower Merna (Ashley Johnson), his best pal since forever, is the one for Henry, but a fog of pot, the recent death of his mother and the newly erratic conduct of his grieving father (David Morse) has spiraled him into ineptitude worthy of a kid in one of the "American Pie" films.
Morse has become a patron character actor of American independent cinema, and his work here is as good as anything he's done — when he gets his moments, that is. Brewster is as luscious and petty as the story needs her to be and Smith shows fragments of potential. But it's Johnson as Merna who brings the most sparkle to the listless narrative. Her off-center twinkle is plainly what Henry wants and needs, and it's unconvincing that he can't figure it out.
Moral dilemmas faced by immature teens is fine fare for young-adult fiction, but a movie that wants them to be taken as something bigger needs better management than "Nearing Grace" can provide.
Ted Fry: firstname.lastname@example.org
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