It’s easy to see why Rick Rosenthal’s Nearing Grace has been hailed as the follow-up to Zach Braff’s 2004 Garden State: Henry Nearing, played by Gregory Smith, is a young man from New Jersey who changes his perspective on life and the relationships that fill it following his mother’s untimely death. The basic formula clearly echoes Braff’s highly-celebrated breakout film, which portrays the story of a 20-something young man who, following his own mother’s suicide, manages to extricate himself from a life-long dependence on mood-enhancing drugs and finally teaches himself to “feel” with the help of a new female friend and romantic interest. Similarly, 18-year-old Nearing submerses himself in the flourishing drug culture of the 1970s as a way of numbing his emotional pain and disaffection with life, only to pull himself out of the haze by the end of the film when he realizes the significance of maintaining relationships with the people who remain in his life – particularly with his best friend, Merna Ash (Ashley Johnson).
Reducing Rosenthal’s film to a mere comparison with Garden State, however, surely dilutes the emotive power evident in Nearing Grace’s own depiction of grief paired with personal and emotional maturation. Although these themes lie at the heart of the protagonist’s personal journey in Garden State, they are the nucleus of an emotionally troubled network of characters in Nearing Grace. Indeed, what makes Henry Nearing’s coming-of-age story notable in itself is precisely his juxtaposition against a backdrop of various individuals – from his father, Shep (David Morse), to his crush, Grace (Jordana Brewster) – who must also confront difficult life issues in the course of the narrative.
While the premise of Nearing Grace centers on Henry’s infatuation with the beautiful, sexually-liberated Grace and the love triangles that surround their emotionally chaotic relationship, the real depth to this story lies in the beautifully parallel progression of Henry and his father through their mutual grief. The loss of Henry’s mother prematurely initiates each man into one of life’s most difficult phases. Henry is forced to grow up somewhat prematurely of his peers, but he resists the inevitable by hanging on as long as possible to more childish impulses – pursuing his lust for a girl, engaging in competitive acts of destruction with her other “lover” Lance (Chad Foust), quitting school and locking himself in the basement â€œuntil I figure out the meaning of life.” Meanwhile, Shep enters a frenetic mid-life crisis that alternately swings between indulging his depression with a bottle of whiskey and roaring through town on his new motorcycle. In the end, a drunken motorcycle accident/alleged suicide attempt ultimately prompt both Shep and Henry to reevaluate their respective outlooks as well as their relationship.
Because the ostensible story of Nearing Grace – essentially a coming-of-age tale – is one that has been told and re-told over many years, the strength of the characters proves to be of utmost importance in this rendition of a rather generic story. Fortunately for Rosenthal, both Smith and Morse deliver solid and dynamic performances that successfully communicate the distinctive nuances of their on-screen relationship in this piece. As Henry, Smith captures just the right mixture of intelligence, angst, and compassion to match Morse’s free-spirited but fretful rendition of Shep. Furthermore, Ashley Johnson effectively offsets both of the primary male performances with her inspiring portrayal of Henry’s best friend Merna as the one character – notably female – in this film who has got it all together.
For all the strength of characterization in Nearing Grace, the narrative fails to render the oh-so-typical last-year-of-high-school timeline any more interesting than usual. Henry’s development remains carefully attached to the usual progression of events that underlie almost every teen drama, even going so far as to utilize the standard prom-night climax. Perhaps the benefit of the doubt should apply to this aspect of the filmic narrative – after all, Rosenthal based his film on the novel by Scott Summer, which presumably established the basic structure of the story. In any case, this particularly groan-inducing weakness of Nearing Grace serves as a reminder as to why the unusual – if not entirely believable – narrative structure of Garden State was so appreciated.
© 2006 Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.
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