Words by: Jack Dawson
Looking for Grace opens, as many Australian films nowadays seem to, with an aerial shot of the landscape. It’s not a bad opening move, it’s a beautiful landscape from up above, and it can be a versatile tone-setter. Bleak, Joyous, Quirky, Nihilistic; depending on the music and lighting you can get a lot out of the Australian landscape. That’s probably the reason that most of Looking For Grace is set in rural Western Australia, the backdrop makes an excellent amplifier for whatever mood the film-maker is going for. And in this film, that mood is ambiguity.
Grace is a teenage girl who has run away from home. The ‘why’ isn’t readily revealed but the ‘how’ gets explained over the course of the film, mostly thanks to Grace’s parents and an ageing PI who follow her trail. What follows is a non-chronological odyssey through the Australian countryside which reveals very little concrete information about the reasons for Grace’s disappearance and everything about her family’s darkest secrets.
Ambiguity can be a controversial tone to take, since an unresolved plot is usually the hallmark of a bad film. But if that ambiguity serves a larger point, such as the anticlimactic ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which intentionally undercuts the grand narrative typical to Arthurian legends, then it can be justified. So the question that we have to answer here is: is Looking for Grace worthy of its ambiguous plot?
I’m inclined to think so. The characters are all unlikeable in their own way, and all self-aware of that fact to varying degrees. Richard Roxburgh as Dan is particularly fun to watch, while his character goes through the very tired tropes that male characters of a certain age and disposition go through in independent films (infidelity, lying and feelings of inadequacy), its undercut with a vulnerability and the knowledge that he isn’t justified in what he’s doing that’s surprisingly compelling.
Odessa Young as the eponymous Grace also pulls her weight over the course of the film, holding her own against the other performers in the film. Often she manages this without speaking a word, and manages to convey a complex character in understated terms. And complex is the only way to play such an immediately unlikeable character, though the same is true of almost every character in the film. They’re easily irritable, indignant at the slightest provocation, and possess the emotional maturity of a fourteen-year-old boy. And the search for Grace only inflames those qualities, with exciting, nobler qualities hidden beneath the surface. This contradictory dynamic is the main focus of the film, and seeing it from different perspectives is what the non-chronological framing device is for.
But if you’re not in the mood for a character-centric piece, or you find the characters to be so unsympathetic as to be unwatchable, then this film holds little value for you. This film has proven to be a subjective one amongst critics, some praising it for its strong character focus and others blasting it for its single-minded focus on a small cast of unlikeable characters who follow a meandering plot with no clear beginning or end.
But that same rambling narrative with no clear end in sight feels true to life in many ways, and I can’t help but admire the film for what it does succeed in. Grace and her family aren’t very nice people, but they still exhibit positive qualities in spite of that, in a way that feels genuine. Plus, the film holds a certain personal appeal for me, being shot extensively around my hometown of Quairading. I spent most of the film grinning like an idiot at the glimpses of the town that I saw onscreen, even if it led to one brain-scrambling moment when a character insists they stop at two different restrooms. After some confusion I realised that both restrooms were actually located at the same BP roadhouse and had been shot from different angles to give the appearance of being distinct.
Looking for Grace is a film that lives or dies on the tastes of its viewers. Some would call that a failure on the part of the film-makers to engage with a wider audience, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But others might call it brave for sticking to its guns and pouring all of its energy into one aspect of its plot. And I can’t help but nurse a soft spot in my heart for this film considering my own emotional connection with its setting. All in all, I’d recommend you see it for yourself and make up your own mind about whether it’s a daring success or a morose failure.