Seeking consistency

Katerina Sakkas: Sue Brooks’ Looking For Grace

Odessa Young, Looking for Grace

Odessa Young, Looking for Grace

Looking for Grace is a film marked by divisions: the deliberate dividing of the narrative with the same events revisited as ‘stories,’ as seen from different characters’ perspectives, as well as the perhaps not so deliberate tonal shifts that mark its three main acts.

The introductory segment, Grace’s Story, is evocative, presenting an aerial view of salty desert landscape before descending to follow teenage Grace (Odessa Young), who’s taking a bus to an undisclosed destination along wide flat roads with her best friend Sappho (Kenya Pearson). The arrival on the bus of a slightly older boy (Harry Richardson) sounds an ominous note that’s picked up in Elizabeth Drake’s temporarily noir-ish score as the three check into a motel for the night.

The adolescent tensions that surface within the triangle are subtly observed by writer and director Sue Brooks: the resentment, attraction and conflicting loyalties portrayed with skilful naturalism by the three young actors. This moody mini-episode creates anticipation.

Disappointingly, as the action switches to suburban Perth in order to track Grace’s escapade through other eyes, the film begins to shed its initial subtlety and suspense. In conveying the stories of Grace’s parents, Denise (Radha Mitchell) and Dan (Richard Roxburgh)—as well as that of Tom (Terry Norris), the elderly private detective who provides sporadic support—Brooks favours the broadly drawn Oz personalities that underpinned her 2003 film Japanese Story.

Radha Mitchell, Richard Roxburgh, Looking for Grace

Radha Mitchell, Richard Roxburgh, Looking for Grace

At a gathering of relatives and police at the couple’s home in the wake of Grace and Sappho’s disappearance, Brooks dials up the farcical quirkiness. The gags come thick and fast, with Dan’s secretary attempting to reassure Denise by inappropriately alluding to murder and rape, while her sister irrelevantly wonders aloud if they should use the good china. There’s fussing over the police detective’s dropped cigarette and deadpanning over Death Dog, the name of the band the girls have probably run away to see.

If this were a brasher film, like Muriel’s Wedding (1994)—itself a triumph of tragicomic farce—the relentlessness of this scene wouldn’t be a problem, but here it sits oddly alongside the naturalism of Grace’s story.

This tonal dissonance carries over into the roles of Denise and Dan, with Mitchell and Roxburgh emphasising their characters’ bumbling ineptitude and perpetual bemusement in a manner that occasionally tips into caricature. Denise is spacily suggestive of a housewife from a slightly earlier era (“Yoo hoo!” she calls, mounting the stairs in search of her daughter). The quirks might be intended to evoke a universal fallibility, but their exaggeration makes it difficult to see Dan and Denise as real people.

Other potentially interesting narrative threads and characters remain undeveloped, as with Bruce, a long-haul truck driver whose presence in the film is pivotal yet unexplored; perhaps the signalling in onscreen captions of various characters’ ‘stories’ leads us to expect more than the fragment delivered.

In her visually innovative 2005 feature Look Both Ways, the late Australian director Sarah Watt used similar tropes of everyday awkwardness to compellingly confront the spectre of death. Sadly, the tonal unevenness in Looking for Grace dilutes the sense of loss so crucial to its climax.

Looking for Grace, writer, director Sue Brooks, cinematography Katie Milwright, editor Peter Carrodus, composer Elizabeth Drake, Palace Films, 2015

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016, web

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 March 2016