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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Gracie's Choice
Gracie's Choice
Warner Bros. // Unrated // January 18, 2005
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 2, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The best new show of the season -- and remember, this is not an opinion, but objective, irrefutable fact! -- is UPN's Veronica Mars. There's a lot to like about Rob Thomas' junior detective drama, from its stellar supporting cast to some of the most clever plot twists on network television. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the show is its leading lady, Kristen Bell, who's just a hell of an actress. Bell has the chops to effortlessly juggle a character who's wickedly sarcastic, incredibly bright, and still tender and vulnerable; it's that depth she offers that helps make Veronica Mars -- both the character and the show -- so hopelessly endearing. Although Veronica Mars has been stuck in reruns for the past few weeks, I've been thoroughly impressed enough by Bell's work on that show to decide to spend a Tuesday night with one of her earlier efforts, the Lifetime Original Movie Gracie's Choice.

The movie stars Kristen Bell as Gracie, the daughter of an embattled mother (Meredith Baxter-Birney) who soldiers on after being relentlessly beaten with a rod. No, wait...that's a Jim Gaffigan routine. Gracie's Choice stars Bell as the titular Gracie, a twelfth grader who's bounced around from place to place so much that she lost track after her 41st school. Gracie's drug-addled mother Rowena (Anne Heche) flits from town to town, shacking up with whatever heavily-tattooed biker catches her eye at any given moment, dragging her brood along for the ride. Each of Gracie's four siblings were fathered by different men, with Gracie not having seen her own father since she was a severely beaten two-year-old. Their actual mother too busy scouring trashy bars for her next good time to be a parent, Gracie has long since taken on the maternal role in the family. Rowena's devoutly religious mother Louela (Diane Ladd) continually falls for her daughter's weepy pleas for forgiveness, giving her a thirty-third or thirty-fourth second chance when the law inevitably catches up to her yet again. Rowena's not able to sweet-talk her way out of her latest drug bust, and she winds up in prison. Her five children are split apart, and after Gracie and her sister Rose suffer through an extended and undeserved stint in juvie, Louela is able to bring the family together again.

With Rowena out of the picture, things finally start to seem heading in the right direction for Gracie and family. A stern guidance counselor starts pushing Gracie to bring up her grades, and she falls for Tommy (Shedrack Anderson), a nice, persistent kid with an idyllic homelife. Of course, it wouldn't be a Lifetime Original Movie if there weren't some sort of tumult for Gracie to triumph over, and before too long, Rowena returns, not surprisingly while hanging off the arm of her new leather-clad fling. Louela has been funnelling her daughter all the money she's been getting from the state, leaving Gracie to try to support her siblings with her meager earnings at a nearby diner. Faced with having her family split apart and shuttled off to different foster homes, Gracie makes an unprecedented decision to try to have herself emancipated and then become the foster parent of her younger brothers. The judge is understandably reluctant to assign that sort of responsibility to someone Gracie's age, but she's given the opportunity to prove herself...to rent an apartment, to tackle all the financial burdens of adulthood, and to take care of her schoolwork, a part-time job, and her three brothers. She rises to that challenge as well as numerous others that soon follow, from getting caught in the crossfire of rival gangs in her rough neighborhood to her boyfriend's insistence that she try to lead a normal collegiate life to an attempt by Rowena to wrest her brothers from her home.

Gracie's Choice is a watchable but largely unremarkable movie. It's not timid about dishing out the melodrama, which almost gets to be too much to bear in the first half hour or so. Once things settle down somewhat and the focus shifts primarily on its title character, Gracie's Choice is a much more enjoyable movie. Anne Heche does a fantastic job as an egocentric mother who's a horrendous parent without being particularly malicious. Rowena genuinely seems to think that she's hit rock-bottom and deserves another chance to show that she's learned her lesson, no matter how many times that cycle repeats itself. The real standout, as you could probably guess by my introductory fawning, is Kristen Bell. Gracie may not have any of the bite of a character like Veronica Mars, but they both have a similar blend of strength, determination, and vulnerability. The two actresses are able to elevate a script that's fairly ordinary and occasionally scatterbrained.

The only of Gracie's siblings to exhibit much of a personality is Rose, who seems to be heading down the same destructive path as her mother. It's an interesting contrast to see how the two sisters respond to adversity, but Rose quickly disappears, and although she sporadically pops up again, the motivation for her absence is ignored by the end. Gracie's three brothers are typically collectively referred to as "the boys". None of them really have much of a distinct personality, but since they're the spottiest actors in the entire movie, it's probably for the best that they be pushed as far to the background as possible. There's also an occasional disconnect in the script. I'm not sure if the movie ran long during editing and large chunks were gutted out, but there's a tendency to introduce events without any setup and to toss in some scenes that don't seem to have any relevance at all. It's stated that Louela has been giving her daughter thousands of dollars of her children's money a month, but there's nothing to really give that impression beforehand. Tommy has a change of heart late in the movie that's understandable but is awfully abrupt. I'm not sure what the point of the briefly-glimpsed gang war is, since it doesn't have any lingering effects and it was already established that Gracie hasn't set up shop in the best of neighborhoods. If it's just to show that there's more to Gracie and Tommy's relationships than cheeseburgers and cuddles, it seems like there could've been a better way of conveying that.

It's probably not necessary to meticulously dissect Gracie's Choice's flaws. Like the handful of other Lifetime movies I've seen, Gracie's Choice is reasonably entertaining, although I think it would've benefitted from a tighter script and a bit of restraint when it comes to melodrama. Even if the movie does take some liberties with the real events on which it's based, the message of family and selflessness may appeal to many (even if I'm too cynical to really appreciate it myself), and it boasts an outstanding performance by Kristen Bell. This isn't the sort of movie that compels me to lavish it with praise and demand that anyone reading this review head out to buy the DVD immediately, but if Gracie's Choice sounds intriguing to you, I'd say it's worth a rental.

Video: Gracie's Choice is presented full-frame, which isn't entirely surprising given its cable TV origins. It's a solid presentation, appearing sharper and exhibiting more detail than I'd expect from a basic cable broadcast. The palette's fairly restrained -- likely a stylistic choice since a straightlaced drama about an exceptionally devoted sister doesn't really lend itself to eye-popping colors. There's also a thin veil of film grain throughout, although that too shouldn't be considered a flaw in the presentation. The image is expectedly free of any specks or assorted wear, and no digital artifacts were spotted throughout.

Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo audio, encoded at a bitrate of 192Kbps, is fairly straightforward. There's some mild separation across the front channels, and the score by TV movie mainstay Richard Marvin maintains a decent if unremarkable presence throughout. The movie's dialogue typically comes through well enough and is always clearly discernable, but some of the shouted lines sound clipped and distorted. Nothing particularly unexpected. Gracie's Choice is closed captioned, and subtitles in English and Spanish are also offered.

Supplements: The featured extra is the very aptly-titled fourteen minute featurette "A Look at Gracie's Choice with the Cast and Crew". The only other extra is a couple of minutes worth of plugs for other Lifetime releases. The DVD is cradled in a transparent keepcase, and the interior of the case showcases a still from the movie and a list of the disc's twenty chapter stops. The DVD also includes a set of 16x9-enhanced static menus. It might also be worth mentioning that there's a $5 rebate offer for anyone picking up two of these Lifetime DVDs.

Conclusion: Veronica Mars fans who have been bowled over by Kristen Bell's work on that show should certainly consider giving Gracie's Choice a look. Although I enjoyed the movie, at least to some extent, I can't really see myself fighting the urge to give Gracie's Choice a second spin, and that sort of limited replay value leaves this DVD probably best suited towards a rental.
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