Written by: Robin C. Farrell | June 3rd, 2021
Grace and Grit (Sebastian Siegel, 2021) 1½ out of 4 stars.
Based on Ken Wilber’s eponymous, autobiographical 1991 book, Grace and Grit opens by way of a framing device. Treya Wilber (Mena Suvari, Locked In) begins a speech on stage, telling us how she “met and totally fell in love with” Ken Wilber (Stuart Townsend, A Stranger in Paradise). We’re then flung back in time to witness their meeting cute, whirlwind romance, fairy-tale wedding, and then bombshell breast-cancer diagnosis. The rest of the film proceeds to tell the familiar tale of fighting illness, struggling to find the balance between relating true events and narrative storytelling. The result is a baffling mix of realism that lacks depth, metaphor that lacks consistency, and crucial plot beats that are almost entirely told, not shown.
It’s clear that there isn’t a lot of time available to establish the romance before the diagnosis kicks in, but creating a foundation of profound love has most definitely been done before. Here, though, Treya and Ken’s romance winds up seeming to be based entirely on physical attraction or starry-eyed naïveté (perhaps both), due to cloying dialogue, melodramatic gazing into one another’s eyes, and expressions of intimacy that don’t expand far beyond kissing. So, when their relationship later cracks under pressure, it’s almost expected, rather than surprising, undermining the film’s own intentions.
Particularly frustrating is the abrupt point of view switch, abandoning Treya’s direct experience for Ken’s distress. The film almost singularly depicts how the disease impacts their marriage, rather than also exploring Treya’s individual suffering. The most we get are fleeting flashbacks to her teenage self, standing in front of a mirror, exploring her femininity. There is a legitimate sense of helplessness most of us are probably familiar with when watching someone we care about suffer. That could have been a much stronger motif, had it been the starting point, but it’s not.
There seems to be a strange tone-deafness here, which is confounding, given that the film is based on Ken Wilber’s personal account. We mainly see the effect of events happening off screen, and major events get glossed over with voiceover narration, rather than experiencing the events that trigger emotional responses that the characters (especially Ken) are driven to, multiple times. Watching an authentic representation of battling cancer is never going to be pleasant, but that is the purpose of this film, even inside a love story, so the absence of more agonizing moments of brutal truth severely cheapens the overall experience. In the end, Grace and Grit can’t fully commit to what it wants to be and meanders for too long in too many directions, each of which avoids getting too close to the very elements that should make this story compelling, or at least accessible.