“Running” has precious little to do with “Running for Grace.”
It’s a slow, old-fashioned romance without much in the way of romantic spark, and a coming of age tale that takes its sweet time getting around to that maturity.
The script is limp to the point of soggy, lacking little in the way of melodrama but not creating dramatic tension or suspense about what is to come.
But the novelty of the setting, the stunning above-the-clouds mountains of Hawaii during its coffee-growing heyday, and a poignant subtext about belonging and tolerance make this 1920s period piece almost worth your trouble.
Matt Dillon is the grumpy new doctor brought to tend to the coffee plantation village just after World War I. The Spanish Flu has just torn through the place, taking the wife of the plantation owner (Nick Boraine) and the coffee-picking mother of a little boy of mixed race (Cole Takiue).
Jo is the kid’s name, the product of a love affair between his Japanese immigrant mother and “a haole,” a white outsider nobody but her knew.
Her death is secret, and he’s barely of school age when he’s forced to fend for himself, rejected, our narrator (Rumi Oyama) tells us, for being “half-breed” and “bad-luck” among the Japanese on the “island within an island” (above the clouds), a “bastard” to the few whites there who notice him.
Two-fisted Doc Lawrence (Dillon) may not be happy about the crash in coffee prices that means he’s to earn a fraction of what he’s been promised by Danielson as village physician. He’s facing a language barrier and superstitions when it comes to treating the Japanese.
But he solves two problems at once when he figures out the kid is bilingual as well as bi-racial. The superstitious locals are going to have to accept Jo, because he’s the doc’s new translator and “medicine runner.”
Years pass, with Doc forever frustrated by “racial integrity guidelines” that won’t let him adopt the kid, who has grown up to be the doctor’s trusted, medically-competent assistant and the fastest runner in the hills, racing against buggies and later, against Fords.
From the first time Jo (played by Ryan Potter as a young adult) set eyes on the plantation owner’s daughter Grace (Olivia Ritchie), he was smitten. But no “bastard half-breed” has a prayer with the blonde girl, at least not in the eyes of her racist dad.
The Ford in question belongs to a new doctor summoned by Danielson to serve the white folks of his world. Dr. Reyes is given a drunken, bluff swagger by Jim Caviezel. He could use a helper, too. Will Jo fall for the flashy newcomer and change allegiances? Will Grace?
Give director Daniel L. Cunningham and co-writer Christian Parkes credit for NOT making this about a kid who runs his way to fame and glory. Perhaps you thought, based on the title and the trailer, that’s the direction it would go in. I know I did.
Cunningham (he did “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” and “To End All Wars”) loses himself in the setting, sampling the transplanted Japanese culture and the rainforest village life and nuts and bolts of coffee growing and harvesting it on mountaintops before electricity reached them.
He serves up sweeping pans from the people in the story to the sweeping vista of Hawaiian mountains.
The story, though, could use some work. A lot of it.
Narrator Oyama also plays Grace’s nanny and guardian, and has too little narrating to do and too little to play within the narrative to suit her character’s role in the drama. Juliet Mills stands out in the supporting cast as the imperious mother of the plantation owner.
The early scenes are the best, with the little boy stealing to survive, shunned by one and all, even the sick, even when the doctor insists on having his help on house calls.
And the child’s amusingly inexact translations are the film’s only dollop of humor.
Dillon and the script give the doctor an ahead-of-his-time tolerance that makes him the warm, comforting center of the picture in the early going.
“C’mon. You’re gonna live with me.”
More could have been done with all the racism sampled here, especially in the later going. If Jo is in fact so accepted by one community, what excuses the other one from doing the same?
I loved Caviezel’s rare bad guy turn as the tipsy, swaggering blowhard doing the Charleston, smoking Turkish cigarettes and impressing only the Danielsons. Well, save for Grace and her nanny.
But the Doctor vs. Doctor confrontation is pushed back into the third act, far after I’d lost interest in waiting for it.
The entire picture is beautifully shot, from sunny or gorgeously volcanic fog-shrouded exteriors to the diffuse light interiors, “Running for Grace” looks like a hazy memory of a long lost time.
But as the romance is pulled to the fore and events take every melodramatic detour under that foggy sun in the third act, the picture’s shortcomings start to grate.
The title isn’t just NOT about running, it’s not about “Grace” in the literal or Biblical sense either. The misnomer of a title, coupled with the presence of “Passion of the Christ” star Caviezel suggests an attempt to pitch this as a faith-based drama.
With the romance not clicking and the resolution lacking much of anything that tugs at the heartstrings, “Running with Grace” never rises above “Walking in Place.” And that, as you know, never gets you anywhere.
MPAA Rating: TV-14
Cast: Ryan Potter, Jim Caviezel, Olivia Ritchie, Matt Dillon, Juliet Mills.
Credits: Directed by David L. Cunningham, script by David L. Cunningham and Christian Parkes. A Blue Fox release.
Running time: 1:50