In the new film from writer-director Sue Brooks, a married couple, Denise (Radha Mitchell) and Dan (Richard Roxburgh) embark on a road trip across Western Australia to look for their teenage daughter (Odessa Young), who ran away from home. 

A teen runaway drama is a study of human beings under pressure.

Looking for Grace is Australian writer-director Sue Brooks’ (Japanese Story) thoughtful, odd and sometimes frustrating fifth feature.

The triggering incident is regular enough: teenager Grace (Odessa Young) runs off to see her favourite rock band, robbing the family safe to really make her point. What follows is often involving drama thanks to committed performances and an ambitious style, but the film holds the promise of freshness more than freshness itself.

Grace’s parents Denise (Radha Mitchell) and Dan (Richard Roxburgh) quietly freak out when their daughter disappears, then set off in search of her with a semi-retired detective named Tom (Terry Norris) in tow.

Brooks presents the story from each of the characters’ perspectives, one by one, moving the narrative slightly forward with each retelling. Rather than adding and developing resonance, this device adds less and less to Looking for Grace as the film goes on; its purpose growing murky and then disappearing altogether.

Brooks has a passion for small moments – specifically the space between the beats of a story, where life keeps happening even if nothing else does.

We begin with Grace’s story. Having snuck off with a girlfriend named Sappho (Kenya Pearson), Grace meets an older boy named Jamie (Harry Richardson) on the bus and the two wind up spending the night together. Sappho, disenchanted with the escapade, turns back for home. Jamie splits before dawn with every one of the $13,000 Grace took from her parents. The provenance of that money comes into question when we switch over to Denise’s story, and her discovery of her daughter’s disappearance via a simple note: “Sorry Mum”. It seems Dan, who runs a furniture store, has been keeping secrets – some within the safe and some without.

In its first third, Looking for Grace keeps the viewer off balance with its emphasis on idiosyncrasies of character and situation. Brooks has a passion for small moments – specifically the space between the beats of a story, where life keeps happening even if nothing else does. Grace’s home is plain, beige, inoffensive even in its ordinariness; it feels designed to expel the common teenager. Despite herself, Denise, placing impatient calls to her husband in fancy workout clothes all morning, has taken on the beigeness of her surroundings. Dan, meanwhile, finds himself pinned against an even more spectacularly plain, beige backdrop on the morning of Grace’s disappearance – that of a fancy hotel, where he has taken a colleague to consummate their affair.

Australian film 'Looking for Grace' to compete in Toronto and Venice film festivals
Sue Brooks is the first Australian woman director to have a film in official competition at Venice Film Festival in 15 years. 'Looking for Grace' will also screen in the inaugural Toronto Film Festival 'Platform' competition.

In its broad strokes – child disappears into the Australian desert; parents follow – Looking for Grace bears a passing resemblance to last year’s sombre Nicole Kidman film Strangerland. But Brooks’ is a much lighter affair, if strangely so. Her script has overtones of parody, but Looking for Grace is comprised largely of long, contemplative shots that frame the characters with portrait-like symmetry, such that their actions (and not necessarily their words) tell the story.

This tonal stretch only grows thinner, but some excellent scenes play out along the way. Dan’s confession to Tom, at a roadside motel, about his almost-infidelity brings about a frank and genuine, understated exchange. Mitchell excels in moments of minor exasperation, such as when a pair of errant upholstery cleaners show up. Her daughter’s disappearance may or may not be another such moment, and we see Denise deliberating over when and how much to panic.

I’m still puzzling over the literal blindside that comes in the film’s final act. The characters in Looking for Grace simply look for Grace. The title is and is not a kind of feint, there are no larger metaphors or journeys in play. The shock that comes at the end feels equally devoid of meaning - and perhaps that’s the point, but it makes for rather meandering viewing. More than once I called Brooks’ handle on the story into question, especially where it involves Grace herself, who just seems… awful. The film’s many fragments never arrange to form a context in which Grace’s behaviour - nor that of the characters who spend the film looking for her – can make coherent, emotional sense.

Looking for Grace screened at the 2015 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL. It will open in Australia on January 26, 2016.

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