Is it possible that the soccer exploits of a teenage Elisabeth Shue paved the way for the Mia Hamms and Julie Foudys of the world to bring home championships and gold medals for American women's soccer years later? Probably not, but the rousing sports movie Gracie—inspired by Shue's past and directed by her husband David Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth)—goes a long way toward forging her case in myth. That's the power of the movies: The name Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger won't appear in any record books, but after Rudy, he's the runty personification of gridiron grit. Though Gracie fashions Shue's story into ready-made inspirational formula, it's nonetheless vivid in its particulars, from the looks and sounds of late-'70s New Jersey to the portrait of a soccer-driven family reformed by loss. At the very least, it proves that Guggenheim is adept at shooting more sophisticated setups than an Al Gore PowerPoint presentation.
Newcomer Carly Schroeder stars as a 15-year-old tomboy with three brothers, the eldest of whom is the supremely gifted captain of the boys' high-school soccer team. After he dies in a car accident, Schroeder decides she wants his slot on the team. That draws resistance from all corners, including from her father Dermot Mulroney, who coaches his boys to play soccer, but doesn't believe she can play. Schroeder's cold relationship with her father, coupled with her general social problems and her dismissal by varsity-squad members, leads her to ugly fits of rebellion. But that same fiery spirit leads her back to the game she loves and makes her freshly determined to break into an all-boys sport, with Mulroney's support.
Gracie takes place before Title IX worked to level the playing field for female athletes, and the fact that Schroeder wants to play soccer—as opposed to an acceptable women's sport, like field hockey—raises the stakes considerably. It's impossible to believe that Shue's story hit all those feel-good beats on the nose, but Guggenheim has the chops behind the camera to make those moments count anyway. Very few filmmakers have the guts to embrace the mundane reality that last-second shots and miracle finishes aren't par for the course in sports, which makes Gracie's synthetic nature frustrating. It's achievement enough for Schroeder to fight her way onto the boys' squad; she doesn't have to be Pelé, too. But there's a reason the underdog sports formula is followed over and over: When it's executed as skillfully as it is here, the damned thing works every time.