(2007) *** 1/2 Pg-13
92 min. Picturehouse. Director: Davis Guggenheim. Cast: Dermot Mulroney, Andrew Shue, Elisabeth Shue, Andrew Shue, Trevor Heins.

Though parental guidance is suggested for some brief heavy petting, every kid in America should see Gracie. This outstanding family film and sports movie concerns the struggle for an adolescent female soul, and its salvation through soccer in the early, especially hostile years of Title IX. It's Thirteen meets Bend It Like Beckham, or Rocky with a teenage girl in cleats.

Carly Schroeder gives a fierce performance as Gracie, whose family suffers a communal depression after a tragic accident. The emotional beats of Gracie's acting out and her father's inability to embrace and capitalize on the present are believable and surprisingly nuanced. Dermot Mulroney plays the bottled-up dad, and Elisabeth Shue, as Gracie's mom, touchingly render mixed, helpless feelings. Mom initially proves co-dependent to Dad's reticence to acknowledge Gracie's talent. "Not everything's possible," she tells her daughter. "It's different because you're a girl."

Screenwriters Lisa Marie Petersen and Karen Janszen could've settled for straight lines in this "no, you can't"-"yes, I can" conflict, but instead they develop the story with patient, honest acknowledgement of the characters' self-doubt, including Gracie's. The emotional realism owes to the film's origins in Shue's real life; though freely fictionalized, the story derives from Shue's own family tragedy and her boundary-breaking play, starting at age nine, on boy's soccer teams. Shue's brother Andrew also appears, as an assistant coach, and the film is directed by Elizabeth's husband Davis Guggenheim (Deadwood), making Gracie a familial labor-of-love.

Liberal-media watchdogs will have their radar up, given that Gracie is Guggenheim's follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, and from an artistic standpoint, they'd be right to roll their eyes at the unnecessary, picture-ending endorsement of Title IX. Politically and implicitly, the film has already made its point that Title IX was and is necessary for girls' access to athletics. And since the story isn't one of today's "separate but equal" programs, the debate—including a school-board hearing—consistently reminds us that if Gracie can't literally run with the big boys, she doesn't deserve any slack.

Critics are already falling all over themselves to assail Gracie for its sports-movie formula while absurdly critiquing its novelty—a girl's perspective—as somehow pandering. Such guarded cynicism refuses to acknowledge the lush forest for its trees. Yes, Guggenheim's film aims to make audience's feel good—hardly a crime when done well—but it also earnestly dramatizes emotional dynamics that too often are tools of pandering. Though there is an indulgent metaphor (again, inspired by Shue-family reality) of a bird outgrowing its cage, there's not a horse to be seen here (I'm looking at you, Flicka); instead we get the tender likes of mutual boy-girl respect that never overtly erupts into romance, and a touching brother-sister bond, something not often seen, and even less often taken seriously, in teen pics.

Real-deal locations help to fill out the film's lived-in world, and despite occasionally sweeping scoring, Guggenheim doesn't linger or wallow in the heaviest moments (a death and funeral pass in an appropriately expressive blur of shock and grief). Gracie isn't just entertaining but socially vital: how often do you see a film that's not only interested in girls' lives but equally honest about their tribulations and their potential?

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