Sure, it’s pretty much a true story. And yes, it’s arguably gratifying to see a picked-on young female athlete overcome sexism and her own doubts to realize her dreams. But trying to make believe that Gracie is something more than just another cornball coming-of-age sports story is difficult to do — because it’s so completely in the shadow of Bend It Like Beckham. That 2002 femme-footie light drama, about an Indo-English high-school girl whose love of soccer football lifts her above her immigrant status and opens up her life, was so charming that any similar pic is handicapped from the start. Even one about fifteen-year-old Gracie Bowen, a wannabe prep soccer star from South Orange, New Jersey, who finds herself by reaching for the stars.
The quest of the fictional Gracie (teen actor Carly Schroeder) to play on the boys’ high-school soccer team after her soccer-phenom brother Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer) is killed in an auto crash is essentially the real-life story of actor Elisabeth Shue, who plays Gracie’s mother and who happens to be one of the film’s producers. Shue (Leaving Las Vegas, Dreamer, Adventures in Babysitting) came from a soccer-crazy New Jersey family, too, and was the only girl playing on all-boys’ teams in South Orange. One brother, Andrew, went on to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. In the movie he plays a helpful coach. Another brother, William, died young. Gracie is dedicated to him, and all the action is set in the Shues’ New Jersey hometown in the 1970s.
Dad (played by Dermot Mulroney in a perpetual dyspeptic haze) is a furniture mover. Mom (Elisabeth Shue, casting worried glances) is a school nurse. After heroic Johnny dies, there are two younger brothers who snort derisively at Gracie’s jockish efforts. They all live a working-class family life in a rundown house with a homemade soccer goal set up in the back, where Dad trains the kids on penalty kicks and ball control, night and day. The stage is set for Gracie’s blossoming when she kicks a barefoot goal to win a bet and Johnny tells her, “You can do anything.” And so she does, dumping her kid-stuff boyfriend to train, lobbying for a place on the boys’ soccer team, winning over her doubting Dad, etc. She even goes so far as to free that caged bird that crops up in every scene. All we can think about while she’s doing this, however, are the lively expressions and sparkling personality of Parminder Nagra as Jess in Bend It. Schroeder can’t nutmeg her way past that comparison no matter what she does. With her flaxen hair and worried, narrow-set eyes, peasant-faced Gracie trains like Rocky and moves a lot like him as well. And if you think Bruce Springsteen would miss a chance to write a song for this ’70s-era Jersey girl, baby, you were born to run.
One of the worst failings of Gracie is that for all its period tunes and hairstyles, it bears little relation to the actual place called the 1970s, or any other time and place on planet Earth. In fact, the movie seems to exist in some alternate universe where soccer is king — but that little universe never connects with the outside world. For instance, Gracie is set around the same time period as the quixotic New York Cosmos soccer team (as glimpsed in the entertaining 2006 doc Once in a Lifetime), yet we don’t get that feeling for the game or the times that we did in Bend It. No Giorgio Chinaglia or Pelé, no Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs feminist sense of triumph, nuttin’. Director Davis Guggenheim, best known for helming An Inconvenient Truth, should have hipped the Shues that their pet project needed something more than poor Gracie’s dull diligence. In Europe, Gracie would probably miss that climactic goal, or it would be revealed that her lost brother was her secret lover — something to give her character a little all-too-human dimension. Euros think happy endings are for babies, but Americans always require something to feel good about. When you wake up after napping through this earnest timewaster, you’ll feel relieved, but you won’t know why. Here’s a clue: Gracie can’t bend it.