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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Running for Grace is a drama set in 1920s Hawaii about a wrong-side-of-the-tracks boy who romances a rich girl. The movie includes lots of period-accurate racism and classism, though its sympathies are clearly with the downtrodden. A boy is slapped and despised for his biracial heritage, and he's called things like "half-breed." His (white) guardian is called things like a "country doctor" and "backwoods country hick." People of color are also called "Jap," "Nip," and "Orientals," and nonnative Hawaiians are called "haoles." Race also figures in the movie's most upsetting scene: A Japanese man attempts to poison himself after financial ruin, something that a character calls an "honorable suicide." Other characters die suddenly and violently; viewers see their relatives mourning them and their (non-gory) dead bodies. Characters smoke cigarettes and drink; one character drinks while driving and gives alcohol to a teen. Cursing is infrequent and mild ("damn," "hell," "bastard"), and sexual content is limited to significant looks and a single kiss. The movie offers clear messages about the evils of racism, as well as the transcendent power of love and the importance of courage, perseverance, kindness, and care.
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What's the story?
Set in 1920s Hawaii, RUNNING FOR GRACE tells the story of Jo (Ryan Potter), an orphaned biracial boy who's despised by the people in the village where he lives. But Jo's fortunes change when he's adopted by a kindly village doctor (Matt Dillon) who puts Jo to work running his medicines all over the mountains and plantation fields where his patients live and work. When circumstance brings Jo together with Grace (Olivia Ritchie), the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, a forbidden attraction blossoms. Unfortunately, Grace's father is interested in marrying her off to Dr. Reyes (Jim Caviezel), all the better to infuse cash into his ailing coffers. Can Grace and Jo find a way to be together despite their many obstacles?
Is it any good?
Sweet but slow-moving and clichéd, this tale of forbidden love in plantation-era Hawaii isn't without appealing qualities -- chiefly, a strong cast and positively gorgeous shots of the island setting. The main problem is the weakness of the love story holding Running for Grace together. Yes, Grace and Jo are both young and attractive. It's easy to see why they're interested in each other. But although they exchange plenty of loaded glances, they've barely spoken 10 words to each other by the time they embrace for the hackneyed happy-ending kiss that's supposedly so moving that the whole cast bursts into tears.
The rest of the plot is no less subtle: Every twist and character reveal is telegraphed ages in advance. It's clear from our first sight of Dr. Reyes that he's a baddie who's Up to Something; he might as well be twiddling his mustache when he casts his gimlet eye on Grace. (Who, by the way, is given very little to do besides sit on a bed gazing at Jo with her blonde hair angelically lit.) It's hard to root against a story about a despised outsider who triumphs against all odds through heroic actions, and this movie does have its heart in the right place. But, like Grace's underwritten role, it's beautiful -- and insubstantial.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Running for Grace's setting. Why were race and class such divisive issues in Hawaii's plantation era? What role did foreigners play in displacing native Hawaiians from their land and in creating competition between immigrants and indigenous people?
Why are forbidden romances a popular subject for movies? What's more dramatic about two characters who have difficulty being together than two who have an uncomplicated relationship? Is it realistic?
Why does Jo call Koji's attempt to end his own life an "honorable suicide"? What does that mean in the context of suicide in Japan? Should suicide be viewed as honorable?
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