Allison Anders is one of my favorite directors and I was really excited to finally watch Grace of My Heart which I’ve been wanting to see for forever. While I didn’t like it as much as Mi Vida Loca or Gas, Food, Lodging and it does have some structural flaws, it is an incredibly feminist movie in lots of ways and I think it is a more successful effort than Things Behind the Sun. The inspiration for the movie came from the Brill Building era of American popular music, when the songwriters, producers, and recording studios were all working in the same building, just across the hall from each other, and churning out a new hit record every week. The movie follows Illeana Douglas as an aspiring singer turned song-writer, Edna Buxton/Denise Waverly and travels through several decades of music history along the way.
There were so many things that were refreshing and amazing about this movie. It is chock full of a laundry list of lovely feminist touches. Edna is not conventional, Hollywood pretty. Instead, she is intelligent, talented, funny, and ambitious. The movie follows her story and is told from her perspective. It is so rare to see such a well-developed female character at all, much less a film that follows her journey and lets her drive the plot. On top of that, it is one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that was really about a woman’s career and her ambition more than her love life. While Edna’s relationships are important components of the story of the film, they’re important because they develop her character and give her life fullness for us, not because that’s the whole focus of all the movement in the film, which is exactly how romance is used in most movies about male main characters.
The strongest relationships Edna ultimately has are the friendships that she builds with other women trying to succeed in the business and her boss, played really wonderfully by John Turturro. The strength of the bonds that exist between women is a recurring feature in Anders’ movies and it was especially well done in this movie, especially because Anders also shows the initial rivalry and jealousy that can exist between women in the professional world and then shows the women breaking through that. So. Amazing.
Additionally, the movie also lightly touches on the racism, poverty, and homophobia of the time, which gives the movie a lot of extra merit that could have easily been left out or watered down by another director. I especially really loved how Anders included a riff on Lesley Gore’s experience as a lesbian recording artist during that era. She also shows what Edna goes through as a single mom and it is one of the few movies I’ve seen where the children don’t just disappear mysteriously into the background immediately after they’re born. Instead, we actually see Edna’s daughter through the whole movie, we see Edna being a mother while also having a career and dating and living a well-rounded life as most moms do. We see how she has to arrange for child care and we see poignant moments with her little girl. Again, this is something you just NEVER see in movies.
Where the movie kind of falls apart for me is when Edna becomes involved with Anders’ riff on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The real heart of the movie is in the Brill Building and when she leaves New York for L.A., the movie drifts away from its real strengths. Brian Wilson’s whole bizarre personality and life story could clearly be a movie all its own and it feels awkward to have it added on. It takes the drive of the story away from Edna and we lose all the beautifully rendered color and energy of the Brill Building. With that said, it is definitely well worth seeing and it makes me really wish that Anders would make another movie soon.