Looking for Grace

January 28, 2016
Odessa Young in 'Looking for Grace' (2015)
Odessa Young in 'Looking for Grace' (2015)

Looking for Grace is yet another Australian feature that makes a virtue out of vagueness. A small, quirky film, it unfolds like a detective story that never builds up dramatic momentum. The script is permeated with deadpan comedy that echoes the disjointed, inarticulate way so many Australians interact, but there are no great insights to be gleaned from this mirror.

This kind of dialogue is virtually a trademark for writer-director, Sue Brooks, who relates the vast emptiness of the Australian landscape to a spiritual emptiness within the lives of her characters. If any of the people in this film are seeking “grace” in the form of enlightenment or a gift from God, they are barely able to discuss this need, let alone understand it.

We begin on a bus driving on the long desert road that leads from Perth to South Australia. Two teenage girls, Grace (Odessa Young) and her friend, Sappho (Kenya Pearson) have run away from home, ostensibly to attend a rock concert in Ceduna. Everything is going fine, until a handsome stranger named Jamie (Harry Richardson) gets on the bus. Grace is attracted to Jamie, and the trip becomes one long flirtation until Sappho decides she’s had enough and leaves.

Needless to say, Jamie isn’t the romantic hero of Grace’s dreams. She finds herself adrift in the wilderness, unwilling to go home but unsure what to do next.

Meanwhile in Perth, Grace’s parents are frantic with worry. To make matters worse she’s stolen $13,000 from her father’s safe, although he initially says it was only $7,000.

This small, nervous dishonesty is typical of Richard Roxburgh’s Dan, the owner of a furniture store, who never seems comfortable in his own skin. His wife, Denise, played by Radha Mitchell, is a more commanding presence in the family, but her horizons barely extend past the front door. It’s only later that we learn she has been keeping her own guilty secret.

Grace’s disappearance brings a rabble of friends, family and employees into the house, who manage to say all the wrong things. A police inspector puts Dan onto Tom (Terry Norris), a elderly private detective long past retirement age. Tom is an old codger who seems completely unaware of his capacity to ramble on, while offering dubious glimpses of his professionalism. “We won’t need the dental records for this one,” he announces, reassuringly.

As you may have guessed, this is a film in which communication is so fractured one could be watching an absurdist play. To add to the confusion, the same story is told and retold through the eyes of different characters, like a sitcom parody of a William Faulkner novel, or Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Some of these versions are puzzling, notably that of a truckdriver named Bruce (Myles Pollard), who seems to have nothing to do with anyone else.

For Roxburgh, best known for playing the rogue barrister in the TV series, Rake, the part of Dan is a complete turnaround. One of the reasons for Dan’s nervousness is his faltering attempt to conduct an affair with his store manager, Sandra (Tasma Walton). During a furtive encounter that comes to nothing, he provides an abject lesson in how to kill off any spark of passion. The very thought of being unfaithful to his wife scares him to death.

This may be closer to the truth of everyday life than the grand romances we usually see on screen, but it’s also tawdry. We watch both Grace and her father have unsatisfactory encounters with the opposite sex, while the story lurches uncertainly between comedy, drama, mystery and tragedy.

Brooks has tried so hard to avoid the Hollywood cliches that she has created a narrative in which too much is left unsaid and unresolved. It’s not even clear why Grace plundered the safe and ran off. If anything, she suffers from a bad case of teenage entitlement. Her view is that she didn’t do anything wrong because the money belonged to her as much as it did to any other member of the family. By the end of the film a reconciliation has been hammered into place but salvation remains as far away as ever.

Looking for Grace
Written & directed by Sue Brooks
Starring Richard Roxburgh, Radha Mitchell, Odessa Young, Terry Norris, Julia Blake, Tasma Walton
Australia, rated M, 100 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 30th January, 2016.