Sundance 2009: 'Grace' Review


Two movies kept bouncing through my head as I enjoyed the debut feature from writer / director Paul Solet, and those two movies were TEETH and MAY. I happen to think that they're two of the most unique and provocative horror films of the last ten years, but what's most interesting about them is that they're really insightful about all sorts of "women's issues" -- yet both films were written and directed by men! There must be something about the female machine that fascinates genre scribes, and once in a while (when the planets align) we're treated to something as smart, as twisted, and as fascinating as TEETH and MAY. And, yes, Mr. Solet's GRACE can now be included in that list.

Grace would make a great double feature with the recent French import INSIDE, because both movies focus on an issue that most men find horrifying all by itself: pregnancy. In Grace we're introduced to a lovely young woman who has suffered through a pair of miscarriages, but all seems to be going pretty well with her current pregnancy. Or at least things are going well until a terrible car accident leaves our heroine a widow ... and leaves a stillborn baby residing in her womb.

Despite the protestations from her doctor, her mother-in-law, and her new-agey midwife, poor Madeline Matheson insists on carrying the pregnancy to term. But when little Grace finally enters the world, well, let's just say she's not nearly dead. To say much more would spoil most of the surprises, but here's a question worth pondering: How would you handle a newborn who demands blood over breast milk?

On paper, much of what Grace is about sounds basically gross and entirely exploitative. But that's why the horror genre is so awesome: It actually delivers surprises. So while I'm sure there's a perfectly good B-movie to be mined from Solet's concept, the simple fact is that this writer / director has a lot more on his mind than just a few good jolts and a handful of gooey gore. Like the best films (horror or otherwise), Grace works on a variety of disparate levels, and it's tough to find a "weak link" in this debut feature. The pacing, the tone, the cast, the score, the confident approach to some potentially nefarious subject matter ... this is not a horror film that feels like it comes from a first-timer. But perhaps a "new guy" is the only one who'd tackle such a risky concept, and it's the genre fans who get to reap the rewards.

The excellent Jordan Ladd keeps the film rooted in a grim reality, which is invaluable when you're dishing out a movie about a bloodthirsty newborn, and she's flanked by some superlative support work. Standouts include Gabrielle Rose as an overbearing grandmother and Samantha Ferris as a new-age midwife who's a little flighty but also very capable and compassionate about Madeline's unique plight.

Best of all, Grace covers the three essential bases of indie horror: It's scary, it's smart, and it pushes a few boundaries. I suspect that men will have a much harder time dealing with the nastier stuff that Grace offers, while women will be quicker to appreciate the subtextual messages. Stuff like "you can't always get what you want," "be careful what you wish for," and (most important) "don't mess with my baby!" Sort of a scrappy combo between early Cronenberg, Larry Cohen, and Roman Polanski, Grace is certainly NOT for all tastes.

Then again, if you're reading a movie review on a website called FEARnet, I'm betting Grace will be right up your alley. But seriously: Don't show it to your wife if she's pregnant. Save it for after your baby arrives. Seriously.

P.S. It's worth noting that Grace was preceded by a simple-yet-excellent short called RITE, which takes firm aim on how various cultures go through various "rites of passage," without ever really analyzing what their actions mean. It only runs about 9 minutes, but RITE has a few images that I'll remember for quite a while. Pretty impressive for any film, let alone a 9-minute mini-movie.