Dir/scr: James C Strouse. US. 2007. 92mins.

The strengths and limitations of Grace Is Gone exist in conjunction with each other. Intimately conceived and scaled, the work gathers a cumulative emotional power in the plaintive, sharply muted performance by John Cusack as a Midwestern everyman who struggles to find the proper way to notify his two young daughters their Army veteran mother has died in military operations in Iraq.

The first feature from James C Strouse, whose only previous credit was the script of Steve Buscemi's Lonesome Dove, the movie is impressively stripped down, plain and direct. Cusack also worked developing the material as a producer. The film-makers admirably refuse to turn the story into a larger political dialectic: rather they work in miniature, privatising pain and discomfort in revealing the family ruptures and social fissures of love, loss and absence.

The Weinstein Company acquired the worldwide rights for $4m. The work, with production costs of a reported $3m is skilfully made and capably performed, though it faces a highly uncertain future commercially here and abroad given the increasingly dire political and military situation in Iraq. Irwin Winkler's recent Home Of The Brave did not perform that well recently in limited release.

Given the subject matter and low-key, observational style, the movie is likely to be best appreciated in home ancillary markets, particularly DVD. Internationally the film confronts considerable barriers to success.

Affable and sturdy, his soft, almost anonymous face dominated by large wire framed glasses, Stanley Phillips (Cusack) is entrusted with the welfare and care of his two daughters, inquisitive, smart 12-year-old Heidi (O'Keefe) and funny, playful 8-year-old Dawn (Bednarczyk), with their mother stationed in Iraq. Living in a leafy Chicago suburb, the family's world is shattered by the arrival of military officers who inform Stanley his wife has been killed.

Unable immediately to inform his children, Stanley proposes a sudden trip that involves taking a journey to a Florida amusement park. Shaped as a succession of small vignettes, moving between restaurants, hotel rooms and department stores, the movie becomes a sharp exploration of Stanley's reticence and denial, intensifying his own guilt that his career in the Army was circumvented by his poor eyesight.

In the best scene, the three briefly take refuge at the home of Stanley's mother, and they are brought into conflict with his brother John (Nivola), a leftist slacker who espouses a cynical rebuke of US political policies in Iraq. The scene underlines the political divisions of the war without bludgeoning the viewer.

When Stanley finally summons the courage to inform his children, unfolding on a beach, the moment is powerful and extremely moving.

The subtext of Grace Is Gone is absence. The title figure is never shown; the only evidence of her existence is the sound of her voice on the family's telephone answering machine. It also underlines the movie's primary weakness, which is that it withholds too much crucial information about the true nature of the relationship between Stanley and Grace. Stanley's role as a husband remains too opaque and without comment.

Young actors Shelan O'Keefe and Grace Bednarczyk give telling, unsentimental, graceful performances. The sharp interplay between them is touching, funny and lyrical. French cinematographer Jean-Louis Bompoint (The Science Of Sleep) draws on the open road for interesting uses of landscape and natural light. Joe Klotz's editing is smooth and efficient, consistent with a work that is quiet, contemplative without being deep or radical.

Production companies/backers
Plum Pictures
New Crime Productions
Hart/Lunsford Pictures

US distribution

Weinstein Co

International sales
Cinetic Media

John Cusack
Grace Loh
Galt Niederhoffer
Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Ceome Rattray

Executive producers
Paul Bernstein
Reagan Silber
Jai Stefan
Todd Traina

Jean-Louis Bompoint

Joe Klotz

Production design
Susan Block

Max Richter

Main cast
John Cusack
Shelan O'Keefe
Grace Bednarczyk
Alessandro Nivola