Stress can eat us up alive. The bad kind causes chemical changes in the body that can lead to anxiety, depression, headaches, disease, even premature death. While financial difficulties, work conflicts and family arguments are principal causes of stress, the most wrenching trigger is a death in the family, particularly that of one's spouse. Even worse, imagine the impact on a child of the death of a parent well before the father or mother's time! The surviving parent would want to break the news as carefully as possible to shield the young boy or girl from the devastation such news must bring.

James C. Strouse, the writer-director of Grace Is Gone, explores the dilemma faced by one father, a weak man, who has no idea how to break the news to his two small daughters that their mother has just been killed while serving her country in Iraq. Stanley Phillips (John Cusack), a patriotic American who does not question his government or even have the ambition to examine the validity of this country's five-year adventure in the Middle East, appears at first to mirror the writer-director's point of view. But midway into the tale, Strouse gives us pause, hinting at his own politics while at the same seeming to undermine his own views by the way he characterizes the man we believe to be his stand-in.

Cusack’s Phillips comes across as anything but his traditional wise-guy persona as he manages a group of workers in a store that resembles a Home Depot, leading them in an early-morning cheer as though he were the boss in a Japanese firm. Yet we see him as a defeated man, one who—we learn later—wanted a career in the army like his wife but who was turned down because of bad eyesight, leaving him to bring up his 12-year-old, Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe), and eight-year-old, Dawn (Grace Bednarczyk), while their mother served abroad. Upon hearing from two servicemen that his wife was killed, he gathers his two girls together for a talk, then balks, instead suggesting that they all take a few days off to have some fun in their favorite holiday spot, Florida's Enchanted Gardens.

During the road trip, they visit Stanley's brother John (Alessandro Nivola), one quite unlike his sibling—an unemployed, laid-back leftist who mouths platitudes against the "lies" of the Bush administration, asking the girls what they think about the war—only to be censored by Stanley before the girls can reply.

We'd not be giving away the plot to say that Stanley
and the girls arrive at their destination after spending too much time in the car, with the girls bouncing too many times on motel beds, and that the girls do hear the sad news by the time they get back home to their routine existence somewhere in Middle America. Before that, one must question not only how any responsible dad could allow his daughters to jump around in his car without wearing seat belts, but even more how a father can take his kids to a fun place just before telling them the saddest news they will ever hear—thereby causing them forever to associate fun times with tragedy.

Do not take this picture as a political commentary about the war. This is no Rendition or Redacted or Taxi to the Dark Side or Lions for Lambs, but is closer to John Cusack's recent venture in Martian Child. This is a Hallmark event, a weepie, a made-for TV picture targeted to the heart rather than the brain, to the bowling clubs in the heartland rather than to the Whole Foods crowd or Chardonnay-sippers. For performances, look to that of young Chicago-born O'Keefe, who runs the emotional gamut from a 12-year-old who is never as carefree and fun-loving as her kid sister, but displays subtle changes as she becomes increasingly suspicious that something ominous is going on that her dad is not telling her.

The title Grace Is Gone may or not be meant to have a double meaning. Grace is the name of Stanley's dead wife, of course, and since grace also means "the tendency to kindness," perhaps our writer-director is making a political statement after all.