Soccer Moms Ruin a Movie
Gracie (2007) Starring Carly Schroeder, Dermot Mulroney, and Elisabeth Shue. Written by Lisa Marie Petersen and Karen Janszen and others. Directed by Davis Guggenheim.
Gracie is a film about a teenager. It is marketed as a film for "the family," and if there's any doubt about which family members these filmmakers had in mind, the box cover gives a clue. The main character, Gracie, is played by Carly Schroeder; yet Carly Schroeder does not get top billing. That slot goes to Dermot Mulroney who plays her father. Schroeder does not get second billing, either. That goes to Elisabeth Shue, who plays Gracie's mother and appears in this film for maybe 10 minutes total.
Even the middle-aged critics agreed Carly Schroeder's acting was the best thing in this film. Was Schroeder given the lower billing because of ageism?
It's true Schroeder was a newcomer while Mulroney and Shue were both well established. It's also true, however, that when Rocky was released, Burgess Meredith was better-known than Sylvester Stallone, but Stallone, as Rocky, still got top billing. When Batman Begins came out, Christian Bale was an unknown compared to Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, and Katie Holmes; but Bale, playing Batman, still got top billing. Only when the newcomer is young, it seems, does the lead actress get billed below a bit-player.
While this film is about a teenager, it was designed to appeal, not to teenagers, but to soccer moms, in hopes that they would drag their daughters to see this and say, "See, girls can play sports, too!" as if this would be news to the daughters growing up in 2007.
Back in MY Day
The film is set in 1978, which I took to be promising. When writers write about youth in a time when they themselves were young, they tend to be more accurate and more sympathetic toward youth. Examples of this include the films American Graffiti and Donnie Darko, the Joyce Carol Oates novel Foxfire, and the TV show "The Wonder Years."
George Bernard Shaw once observed, "The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time."
Unfortunately, Gracie makes clear quickly enough that the reason it is set in the 70s is simply to keep audiences from snickering at the film's sexual politics. Gracie draws heavily from that episode of "The Brady Bunch" where a girl tries to join the Boy Scouts and the boys try to drive her away with unfair harshness, only to see the girl triumph anyway *. Maybe back then, "The Brady Bunch" was edgy and daring and honest. I don't know. Today, if a girl trying to play sports faced any sexism, it would be far more subtle than that. Since making a film about subtle subjects is challenging, Gracie sets its movie in a time when blatant harassment existed, for all I know.
While Gracie is about a girl struggling to play soccer against boys who endeavor viciously to keep girls out of their game, do not mistake this film as feminist. Hell, She's the Man was more feminist than this, and She's the Man was based on a play by freakin' Shakespeare!
Feminism is about giving women and girls "agency" (i.e. control over their lives). If there's one thing this film does not want its 15-year-old heroine to have — if there's one thing Gracie does not even suggest girls should have — it's agency.
When Gracie wants to be on her high school soccer team, everyone says no, and that's that. She puts up no fight, she just pouts. Later, her father changes his mind and demands that the school let her on the team. He demands this over Gracie's objection, as she has now changed her mind.
Then Gracie gets cut from the team. She pouts. Later the coach puts her back on the team, but only for appearances. Gracie doesn't like that but does as she's told. Then in The Big Game a player gets hauled off the field and the coach orders Gracie to play. She does as told.
I won't spoil the ending. (Hey, maybe she blows The Big Game and the film ends with all the mean boys saying, "See! Girls can't do anything!" as the coach kicks her off for good and then she becomes a drug-addict. You never know how these heart-warming family films will end.)
Many parents, sadly, want to deprive their children of agency, and those are the parents at whom this film is aimed. Most of the tension in the film's first half comes from scaring audiences with the thought that 15-year-old Gracie might lose her virginity. Will she?! Or will her parents save her from herself just in time?! Of course it's the latter. The very reason her father changes his mind and decides to support her being on the soccer team (whether she now wants to be or not) is never stated but clearly implied: he figures soccer will fill up her time and keep her from having a social life.
Indeed, the film seems to use this as a selling point: we should all support girls' sports, the film tells us, because it keeps girls away from boys and away from bad influences like girls who shoplift and smoke (Gracie dumps such a friend as she goes into sports). I'm not sure how accurate this sales pitch is. At my high school, at least, the girl jocks got more dates than anyone. For some reason, chicks who were physically fit, had well-developed leg muscles, and liked sports, were able to attract guys. Go figure.
Not only does this film cheer on depriving girls of agency, it also wants to comfort parents by providing their daughters with a "good influence," which gives Gracie the feel of an "After School Special." The film tries to impress on girls in the audience that sex could only lead to humiliation and discomfort. Fast Times at Ridgemont High offered that same viewpoint, but Fast Times was actually aimed at teenagers, so the characters, showing some agency, had actual sex; Fast Times worked to satisfy adolescent curiosity about the act; and Fast Times bore an R-rating. Gracie wanted the PG-13 and wanted to comfort parents more than it wanted to deter teenaged sexuality, so Gracie is saved from sex just in time, letting the real target audience breathe a sigh of relief while still basking in the comforting belief that their daughters have been given the "right" message.
While depriving the teenager of agency may comfort some parents, it hurts the movie. Centering Gracie around a character who makes almost no decisions, they deprive the film of a heroine, and the resulting film is rather lifeless.
In the film's 97 minutes, there are exactly two moments where Gracie does anything not designed for parent-pleasing. The first is when she writes the name of her dead brother on a wall. Vandalism! And on her own initiative! Of course, she does this as an excuse to get away from her date while he's trying to get physical, but still, it's a nice moment where she shows a little strength.
The second moment comes when the coach cuts her from the team after a boy on the team resorts to physical assault to defeat her, and she says to the coach, "Screw you." Finally! Showing some courage instead of just endurance.
Of course, the coach then gets in her face and demands she repeat that, and she folds in silence. But at least it was a good two seconds. In this film, those seconds need to be savored.
The back of the box tells us:
... when her school forbids her to play and even her family questions her ability, Gracie sets out to prove them all wrong. Fighting to change school policy and facing off against some of the toughest competitors on the field, Gracie must summon the courage to finally show everyone that a girl with a dream can do absolutely anything!This makes it sound like a movie for teenagers. It's misleading. Gracie doesn't fight for anything. It's her dad who gets her on the team. At the school board meeting, it's her mom who makes The Big Speech. Gracie just endures.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a film aimed at parents; and there are certainly worse things in the world than a film that tells parents to support their daughters playing sports. But a film should be honest about its intentions, and a studio should market it to the correct audience. This is another case where the film's producers want children and teenagers to watch the film, then they ignore the needs of those youth while serving their parents instead.
Children and teenagers spend their lives surrounded by adults pandering to stereotypical parents. In the classroom, teachers work to keep youth ignorant of any truths stereotypical parents don't want their children to know (Santa Claus, evolution, whatever). Youth are led to read books that have been screened by (or on behalf of) such parents (books with "good" role-models, no swear words, etc.). Even most TV shows and movies are designed for adult-approval more than youth-enjoyment.
Like any other group, teenagers need to have a culture that is for them. It is cruel for a movie studio to promise that and then not deliver.