'Nearing Grace'

There are many reasons to be suspicious of "Nearing Grace," starting with the title. (Those gerund-woman's name labels are often harbingers of very bad things, or at least very ordinary things.) But this film is smart, funny and, thanks in no small part to David Geddes' cinematography, it occasionally approaches the poetic.

The setup is nothing new: It's a coming-of-age piece in the Jersey suburbs of the '70s, and its protagonist, Henry Nearing, is a self-absorbed, too-smart high school senior lazily seeking the meaning of life armed with a frown and a joint. Henry's quirky, pretty and equally bright best friend loves him, but he's obsessed with the local femme-fatale-in-training.

Henry's hyper-intelligent family disintegrates after the mother's funeral. The father, a ponytailed professor, quits his job, drinks a boatload of Scotch and buys a motorcycle he calls "Thanatos." Older brother Blair takes off on a drug-fueled journey of self-discovery. To Henry, he's part hero, part cautionary tale. What's a sullen teen to do but drop out himself?

The film is grown from the late Scott Sommer's novel "Nearing's Grace," and its literary roots are exposed by conceits such as nail-on-the-head character names. The searching protagonist is Henry Nearing; the best friend whose real value emerges after the mother's cremation is Merna Ash; the object of desire is Grace Chance. A forgiving guidance counselor, Clement C. Haydes, even says to Henry, who at a pot-smoking and depressed 17 can still pilot a small plane, "Think of yourself as a metaphor." Indeed.

Warts and all, "Nearing Grace" palpably captures the furtive glory of teenage first love, or lust, or whatever. The women are not weak, but complex. The family of wounded intellectuals is believably dysfunctional. And the dialogue is clever throughout. (In a picturesque moment of bliss after a long-awaited coupling, Henry asks, "Do you ever worry that the rest of your life will be anticlimactic?")

When the film fails to soar, it's largely because of an earthbound lead performance by Gregory Smith ("Everwood"). Smith does well enough conveying the nihilistic smart aleck, but his occasionally pushed delivery can derail key moments. He gets strong support from David Morse ("The Green Mile") as Henry's quietly heartbroken dad and the charmingly acidic Ashley Johnson as Merna.

"Nearing Grace" flies as smoothly as its sporadically likable lead can pilot it.

Like Henry, its virtues outweigh its flaws.

'Nearing Grace'

MPAA rating: R for drug use, language and sexual content

Director Rick Rosenthal. Screenplay Jacob Aaron Estes, based on the novel "Nearing's Grace" by Scott Sommer. Producers Rosenthal, Susan Johnson, Tracy Underwood. Director of photography David Geddes. Editor Madeleine Gavin. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

In selected theaters.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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