Looking for Grace is a film that holds its hand close. We’re introduced to Grace (Odessa Young) and Sappho (Kenya Perason), two teenage girls killing time on a cross-country coach whose provenance and destination are unclear. The girls look and dress young – think tartan and denim – but seem faintly disenchanted; you sense that Sappho is anxious, not baselessly, that her best friend might be approaching bigger tenets of adulthood than she is ready for. “Did you sleep? The bed was weird,” Sappho whines after staying in a hotel you could probably rent by the hour. The information seems sparse, but is there for those willing to read between the lines.
Looking for Grace is Sue Brooks’ fourth film as director and her first as screenwriter. Despite the writing credit, her film finds most of its pensive tone in imagery, not words. She shoots the outback with the same reverence that coloured her best-known film, Japanese Story, which, incidentally, was also about people trying and failing to communicate. Looking for Grace generally makes better use of similar material; all mottled with sulphur and shot from above, these plains suggest a beckoning mystery that’s in lockstep with the free abandon of her protagonist. Then Brooks overlays these shots with a piano riff, light and lilting as a breeze, that’s initially mysterious, then over-used, then cloying.
The outback, in other words, is sparse and unwritten: a space wherein the search for meaning is the very meaning it embodies. Looking for Grace looks like it will follow the arc of self-realisation in the outback well-travelled by movies like Tracks and Beneath Clouds. Then the movie shifts gears – or rather, stalls and restarts – as Grace, for one, up and all but disappears from its frames. Brooks lowers her hand a little; she plays things less safe, and begins retracing the steps of key players up until they coalesce at a particular moment on Grace’s timeline. Bruce (Myles Pollard) is a truck driver on the home stretch when some tragedy is forecast. Tom (Terry) is a senile detective commissioned to find Grace, whose appearance on-screen is accompanied by a bassoon. The movie becomes comedic where it was oneiric, changing directions so as to privilege coincidence over psychological insight. This makes it terminally uneven.
For example: ‘Denise’s Story’, which shifts the spotlight to Radha Mitchell as Grace’s mother, and is the standout segment. (There’s causality between these facts.) Denise makes the initial discovery that Grace has eloped, taking $7000 cash in tow, but the key revelation is how she reveals this to her husband: casually, like she’s passive-aggressively nudging him towards a fridge door left ajar. Her reactions are inspired not by panic but cool-headed-ness, raising questions as they go. Did she expect this to happen? Does she care that it has? Mitchell manages to be ambiguous despite the odds being stacked against her. She moves comfortably in activewear around a house that’s deprived of life and organic personality. Cinematographer Katie Milwright shoots architecture with an eye for symmetry, and the effect is occasionally akin to real estate photography.
Some arcs flit by like a house of cards tumbles, laid to rest until the story requires them again. Others still are protracted and burdening: ‘Dan’s Story’, for instance, has the misfortune of being both the longest and least valuable stretch, making the final third of the film a drag and the non-linear structure somewhat redundant. Richard Roxburgh is well cast as Dan, Denise’s disaffected husband, who is drawn just this side of ignorant to have depth. Roxburgh handles the role by making nearly everything visible on the surface, like his character neither can nor particularly wants to hide what he’s really thinking. Denise growls at him in a way that occasionally recalls Gina Riley’s work on Kath and Kim; the two have formidable chemistry. But if the segment offered clues to their damaged relationship at the rate that it relishes dead weight, Looking for Grace might strike a balance. Instead, there are long and drawling scenes observing Dan and Bruce simply shooting the shit. The comedic overtones almost buckle beneath the strain.
The movie likewise begins to feel more indecisive than controlled, which could be Brooks’ intention. Mostly, what unites these meandering arcs is an emphasis on the vagaries and awkwardness of our petty interactions with one another. The script, while lopsided, is good at locating the organic stuff between the lines, and at suggesting that how we coast through life-changing events is but the sum of our behaviour in smaller ones. But cut the fat, the jokes, and the banter, and unbury the questions your audience is surely asking from the start, and Brooks’ point about life’s essential un-scriptedness might land a little better once her hand is finally revealed.