"Oh, yeah, I can fly all right. It's the landing I'm not so sure about."
Coming-of-age stories are among the most common in any entertainment medium. Everyone has to grow up, and so every storyteller has something he or she takes away from those formative years that serves as the basis for a story. It's also one of the easiest genres to fake, since many experiences are common to teenagers everywhere, and there is a belief that adolescents and nostalgic adults alike are so eager to toss their cash into the abyss to feel the thrill of youth as it passes that they'll accept any old crap and never complain.
Anyone reading this who was at all associated with Nearing Grace can exhale. Your film is not among the cynical marketing constructs that mar this otherwise fine genre. Nearing Grace is proof that there is still life in the old rite-of-passage tale.
Not that the marketing geniuses behind putting the DVD of Nearing Grace together aren't deadset on having you believe otherwise. I would never have rented this movie on my own had I seen it on the racks at my local video store. The box makes it look like the kind of horny lose-my-virginity schlock that normally heads straight to the USA Network's all-night line-up, something Adrian Zmed or Scott Baio might have made on hiatus from their TV shows in the mid-'80s. Or, in the more modern sense, some young stud from the WB. Not that this would be a wholly inaccurate assumption. Director Rick Rosenthal has directed a lot of WB shows (as well as Sean Penn's Bad Boys), and star Gregory Smith was on Everwood. Lucky for them, they used their summer vacation to trade up. Nearing Grace is a more serious emotional drama, something more along the lines of recent films like Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale or James Ponsoldt's little seen Off the Black than trash like The Girl Next Door.
The script, adapted from a Scott Sommer novel by Mean Creek writer/directed Jacob Aaron Estes, is more concerned about the state of its protagonist's heart than the state of his hard-on, ever so subtly showing us that he is actively trying to neglect one in favor of the other. It's 1978 and in a month, Henry (Smith) will be graduating from high school. It's been a rough year for Henry. His mother died, his father (David Morse) has disappeared inside a bottle, and his brother (David Moscow) is running around the country taking as many drugs as possible in an effort to find himself. This leaves Henry standing alone, facing an uncertain future, and wishing he too could chuck it all aside.
Henry does his level best to make that happen, smoking tons of dope, skipping class, and generally checking himself into an existential lifestyle where the cheese stands alone. Or, the cheese would stand alone if he wasn't so distracted by the women in his life. There is his best friend from childhood, Merna (Ashley Johnson, from TV's "Growing Pains"), who clearly has a thing for her pal Henry even if he is oblivious to it. He's too busy looking at Grace (Jordana Brewster), the sexy bad girl that slinks her way through his classes. It's Grace that Henry has designs to pursue. His only problem is that a third woman gets in his way, and she's got more sway than the other two.
The presence of Henry's mother (Shannon Doyle) still hangs over the men in her life. Her eldest son is trying to deny her memory as much as possible, while her husband refuses to let her go. As Henry chases Grace's skirt, he knows that the relationship with the wild, game-playing girl is not what his mother would have wanted for him. She'd have wanted her son to have something more meaningful.
As it turns out, this is also what Henry wants for himself. Not just in love, but in the world he lives in and life in general. All he needs to do is figure that out on his own and he'll be on the path to true bliss. It's that process of searching for understanding that Nearing Grace is most concerned with, not whether Henry will cross over to the other side with Grace. There is some sex play, and the boy definitely gets within groping distance of the goal, but it's not played salaciously like some teen exploitation picture. Estes and Rosenthal have too much respect for their characters and their exceptional young cast to throw them under the bus like that.
Instead, Henry's transition is smart, touching, and most of all, believable. Even the contrivance of having him deliver his commencement address sidesteps the usual clichés, and Estes makes the most of the moment, giving Henry a platform to finally bare his soul. Which is what sets Nearing Grace apart from the movies the studio would have you believe this small drama is in league with--it actually has a soul. Ignore the suggestive, My Tutor-style cover and the bad taglines, there's a lot more going on in Nearing Grace than appears on the surface. You don't have to go too far to see it, just crack the DVD box and hit play, and you'll be there.
Director Rick Rosenthal and actress Jordana Brewster sit down for a commentary track. Though a detailed commentary that relates many stories about the day-to-day shooting and information about particular scenes, it is extremely dry and dull to listen to. Rosenthal and Brewster have zero chemistry, and the conversation drifts into silence often. There are also a couple of audio glitches where the microphone or something in the recording process buzzes for ten or fifteen seconds.
The "behind the scenes" featurettes is a lazily assembled seven-and-a-half minutes of on-the-set footage matched to snippets of the corresponding final scene. There are no interviews, and only brief snatches of live audio. Most of it is shown with some pretty bad guitar music underneath. A totally unnecessary bonus.
Twelve basically identical TV commercials and one trailer reinforce the notion that this movie is allegedly about sex, sex, and more sex. What kind of bonus are back-to-back TV commercials with the only difference being that some say "starts tomorrow" and others "now playing"? Ooooh, me want!