Friday, December 03, 2004


SEE GRACE FLY (2003, Canada, Pete McCormack)
Listen kids, when I was at this school the world was a different place. So, to further amend my valedictorian speech: I was wrong about the future. There isn’t one. Forget jobs, forget education – pray your ass off.

In an evocative and assured opening sequence, we hear an urgent conversation about a top secret hi-tech project that must be completed within days. “He” arrives Friday, and there is much left to do: equations to be reworked, data to be confirmed and, most importantly, people to be warned – “that’s part of the deal.”

The stakes are high, the hushed voices intelligent, businesslike, rational – apart from odd non-sequiturs like “we’re still in the duality of here and now” that slip past us in a flow of technical detail and scheduling issues we can’t quite track with. The camera pans across walls and tables covered in paper: elaborate blueprints littered with yellow and pink sticky notes, documents filled with formulas and geometric diagrams, detailed DaVinci-like drawings of what seems to be a space ship or flying machine. A voice remarks “this might feel like an act of faith right now, but it is backed by fact,” and we see a Bible, held open with a black document clip.

It turns out that these preparations are for the arrival of Jesus, and the voices are inside the troubled mind of Grace (the extraordinary Gina Chiarelli), a fortyish woman who has designed a flying machine to transport the faithful out of this world at the moment of Christ’s return, scheduled for ten o’clock Friday morning.

That also happens to be the time set for her mother’s funeral – a cover for the Second Coming, according to Grace. When her brother Dominic (Paul McGillion, looking like a less-weathered Mel Gibson) returns for the funeral haunted by his mission work in war-ravaged Sierra Leone, Grace disappears into the streets and alleys of Vancouver to evade hospitalization and to spread the word about the Lord’s imminent return.

If the film treated Grace’s religion entirely as a symptom of her mental illness, it would hold little interest. But SEE GRACE FLY presents us with something much trickier and more truthful – a legitimate faith, masked by the symptoms of mental illness. For all Grace’s confusion – documented in painful detail by Chiarelli’s fearless and celebrated performance – we are never allowed to forget that there is a real human soul in there, an intelligent and compassionate woman who is operating with complete sanity in a world that seems to her to have lost its grip on the truth.

But the real fascination comes when screenwriter-director Pete McCormack adds one more level of complication. Could it be that Grace is not only an authentic Christian, but also that she is right? She’s right about a lot of things – things she couldn’t know by ordinary, rational means, a fact that forces Dominic to examine his own faith, earthbound, weary and detached. The triptych of believers is rounded out by Father James, a robustly human Catholic priest who’s a long-time family friend (an unaffected and appealing Tom Sholte)

As refreshing as it is to see a film which sets aside all the galling Bad Missionary stereotypes perpetuated by such everybody from Peter Weir to Barbara Kingsolver, the Dominic character ultimately rings false, in spite of a convincing performance by McGillion. He felt more like an NGO worker than like any missionary I’ve known. I buy (and appreciate) his compassion, his smarts, his weaknesses and doubts, but somehow his faith felt tacked on, not organic. I recognize that a certain relational detachment is essential to the character – he’s “the king of walking away” – but that could play just fine in a character with a more authentic faith.

The Dominic problem comes to the fore in a sexual scene late enough in the film that I’m wary about spoiling things with too-precise details. It’s not that a Christian wouldn’t be sexually tempted, or that some of the scene’s wonderfully surprising consequences might not occur – our God is wildly unpredictable, more interested in drawing people to Himself than in dotting every moral “i”. But the character’s response to the experience simply doesn’t convince: there’s no wounded conscience, no sense of a moral compromise that needs to be worked through. It’s as if the writer simply doesn’t understand why such an experience would be any real problem.

A great strength of McCormack’s writing is a certain sense of humour and proportion, the way in which Weighty Moments are punctuated by a self-deprecating comment or just plain old reality. I love Grace’s flashes of lucidity and frankness about her own mental difficulties, and the truths she speaks in the midst of her mania. One sequence in an elementary school is a particular gem; “So, to further amend my valedictorian speech, I was wrong about the future...”

Sometimes SEE GRACE FLY suffers from First Screenplay Syndrome. Some of the theological musings and psychological insights are a bit too on the nose. There’s also a tendency to toss too many ingredients into the narrative stew. Some are particularly jarring, such as an incest reference that needed to be developed or cut, and an utterly peripheral sperm donor sidetrack that seriously misjudges the tone of the scene where it’s inexplicably introduced.

I also can’t help second-guessing the film’s concluding scenes, which reach for ambiguity and mystery but seem merely indecisive, the result of post-production compromise rather than a clear and precise choice that would give the poetic resonance and complexity McCormack was after. Instead of choosing among several possible resolutions, the film gives us a couple and leaves us to sort things out.

The film was made on an excruciatingly tiny budget, and unfortunately that shows. While there are great-looking scenes and several strong visual images, overall the film looks bland and badly lit. But the guerilla-filming tactics also yield some of the movie’s most extraordinary moments, such as an unforgettable sequence where Grace distributes yellow sticky notes to drivers stopped in traffic: real drivers, real traffic, real risk and energy.

The film’s fans – and they are many, just check out all those festival awards – feared that technical problems would hurt its chances for theatrical release, but heart and artistic ambition have triumphed. SEE GRACE FLY opens in selected Canadian cities in November and December, and will soon be available to American viewers through

I celebrate this film for its independent spirit. I’d rather see a flawed but gutsy film like SEE GRACE FLY than the kind of plastic perfection so often served up at the multiplex. Leonard Cohen wrote about the cracks in things, “that’s how the light gets in.” The consumer-tested design and polished surfaces of so many commercial films render them unlikely to bring us much spiritual truth – at least, not the incarnational kind of truth that shone through when Jesus took on flesh and lived out a dusty, sweaty life in Palestine. But where the big money projects fail, a rough and passionate project like this one might just succeed. Whatever you make of the film’s other artistic and technical merits, there is no denying its passion and integrity, and the power of Gina Chiarelli’s heart-hurting performance.

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

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