Gracie, featuring actor siblings Elisabeth and Andrew Shue, isn't the only film that has just opened with co-stars who are related. There's also the romantic weepie Evening: Real-life mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson play screen mother and daughter; and Meryl Streep's character is played in flashback scenes by her daughter, Mamie Gummer (the resemblance is intense).
But Gracie does Evening one step better: The movie tells the real-life story of the Shue family. Elisabeth ( Leaving Las Vegas, Cocktail, The Saint) plays her own mother. Andrew ( Melrose Place) plays his old soccer coach. And the director, Davis Guggenheim (who won a best documentary Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth) is Elisabeth's husband. Paging Dr. Phil.
In Gracie, the "Bowens" are a middle-class New Jersey family circa 1978, caught in a classic dynamic: Dad Bryan (Dermot Mulroney), a former soccer player felled by an injury, focuses exclusively on his three sons, obsessed with having them succeed where he didn't. His two youngest boys are good players, but the eldest, Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer) is gifted, a golden boy. The two females in the family react to Bryan's indifference differently. Wife Lindsay (Elisabeth Shue) drifts around her house like a ghost, while daughter Grace, 15, (Carly Schroeder) does everything she can to get his attention. When Johnny dies in a car accident, Grace channels her grief into becoming the first girl to play on the boys' soccer team. (There was no girls' team.) Bryan first scorns her efforts, but eventually coaches her to victory.
Andrew, the film's producer (he spent five years raising its $10-million U.S. budget), set out to make a film that would honour his late brother, Will, who died in an accident in 1988 (in his late 20s, a decade later than the Johnny character). It was Guggenheim who suggested they shift the focus to Elisabeth's story. From age 9 to 13, she was the only girl to play on her school's soccer team, but you wouldn't know it from her family archives: Though there are stacks of photos and home movies of her brothers playing, there isn't a single shot of her.
"The movie is Davis's view of what it was like to be me in my family," Elisabeth, 43, said in a phone interview. (They met soon after Will's death, at a bowling party thrown by her Hollywood agency. She spied him across the alley, and fell in love at first sight.) "You think you know more about your family because you're in it, but actually people on the outside can see more clearly the dynamics. Davis could see how much I disappeared in my family. He pointed out to me how quiet I was around them, how lonely I seemed in my family. He also wanted us to go close to home, and to include lots of personal details."
So they shot in South Orange and Maplewood, N.J., where the Shues grew up, at their actual high school and pizzeria. The music is the music they listened to, including Growin' Up by New Jersey's poet laureate, Bruce Springsteen, who rarely releases his songs to films.
Hollywood families often act out their dramas publicly, but they rarely make entire movies about them. "This whole thing has been this strange therapeutic experience, where we all understand each other better now," Elisabeth said. "I think so much of your life, you're just surviving. Then you hit your late 20s and all of a sudden you become conscious, you start to see all these realities that you grew up with. Until Davis pointed it out, I was constantly saying what an amazing childhood I'd had, how lucky I was to grow up with three brothers. Which is partly true, but by no means the whole story."
Unlike the film, Elisabeth's parents divorced when she was 9. She and her brothers lived with their mother, who struggled to make ends meet. Playing her gave Elisabeth more insight into what she went through, too. "It was fascinating," she said. "To realize she had a lot of feelings that I had when I was growing up, yet we didn't reach out to each other. I was there struggling to be seen, and she was so lonely that she didn't realize it."
One scene, pulled directly from Elisabeth's life, was particularly mind-bending for her. It was based on the real day that she stole her father's hot rod for a joy ride. "I had to do this shot where I run out just as Gracie drives away," she says. "So I was hiding behind the stairs, waiting for her - who was really me - to get out the door so I - as my mother - could come into the shot. It was bizarre, like something from Back to the Future."
The public therapy seems to have worked, though. "It really brought our family together, it gave us a great excuse to talk every day, and to analyze our life," she said. "Andrew especially loved reliving it. His life was probably the most charmed. He was unbelievably effervescent. Curious, full of life, incredibly graceful athlete, girls loved him, things came easily for him. If he could, he would curl back up into his childhood and we'd all be together, playing soccer and talking around the kitchen table."
These days Elisabeth's son Miles, 9, and daughter Stella, 6, both play her old game (her third child, Agnes, just turned 1), and she's an advocate for women's soccer. "Women attack the ball more than men, there are so many more shots on goal. We don't see women athletes on TV enough, so people are always shocked by their endurance level and their speed." But she refuses to complain about her career, which has slowed considerably since its peak in 1995 - the year she was nominated for a best-actress Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.
"That's a boring story," she said. "I love expressing myself in acting, but my life is incredibly full. I haven't let the ebbs and flows of my career destroy me. I don't feel like I need a big career to satisfy my soul. I feel patient. I have faith that every once in a while something comes along that challenges me."
In the meantime, she plays a lot of tennis, about two hours a day, which "helps me, finding again the physicality that I grew up with, letting me fulfill something I didn't finish when I was younger," she said. "You get that shot where it's all connected and perfect, and then it goes away. And then you try to get it back." Sounds like more therapy to me.