It’s not uncommon for me to remark about a movie that it was only OK to me, but that I can imagine a lot of people really liking it. I feel almost the opposite about this one. The Grace Lee Project was OK to me, but I suspect most people would find it less interesting.
And that’s because it overlaps somewhat with my own filmmaking interests (though far less than The Big Bang), and I know that’s just not a lot of people’s cup of tea. It’s a documentary based on interviewing ordinary people about their lives, and I happen to be a lot more into that than most folks are.
This movie also, by the way, has a lot in common with the film Google Me, which was done by Jim Killeen, whom I know personally.
Grace Lee is a Korean-American filmmaker, and her film is all about other people named Grace Lee.
When Lee realized what a common name hers is, especially in the Asian American community, she started asking people to describe any Grace Lees they knew. What she found, she reports in the film, is that almost everyone described the Grace Lee they knew the same—as a combination superwoman and stereotypical meek Asian female. The Grace Lees were typically nice, intelligent, over-achieving academically, quiet, humble, etc. And seemingly not the type to make much of an impression despite their achievements, as no one seemed to know one well or to remember any details about her beyond this general description.
Disturbed by this, she decides to investigate further by seeking out Grace Lees to talk to directly. (Should she have been disturbed, by the way? Almost everything that is supposedly typical of the Grace Lees is a positive in my book. I wish more people were nice and humble and diligent about their schoolwork and all that. But because it fits some stereotype of the Asian female, the filmmaker has a visceral reaction against it and longs to find out that Grace Lees, and Asian women in general, really aren’t like that. That’s unfortunate. Good traits are to be celebrated whether they are stereotypes or not.) So she sets up a website and asks Grace Lees to contact her, and she interviews as many as she gets around to.
I don’t think the “hook” is all that successful. Is there really any suspense about how her inquiry (into whether all Grace Lees really do fit that common description of a bland and forgettable superwoman) is going to turn out? Naturally she finds that the Grace Lees vary greatly, that they’re all individuals, that they can’t be pigeonholed in some simplistic way.
So the basic gimmick of the movie is borderline dumb, but it becomes an excuse to talk to people about their lives, and that stuff was at least sometimes interesting to me.
Of course some of the interviewees are a lot more likable to me than others. The octogenarian civil rights activist is the most impressive. The fundamentalist Christians don’t much appeal to me. (Lee found that a disproportionate number of Grace Lees are Christian, due to the name “Grace” being commonly chosen for its religious implications. Perhaps the second most common source for the name is people who named their child after Grace Kelly.)
The filmmaker doesn’t reveal a lot of biographical facts about herself. I kind of wish she had. Maybe she didn’t want the film to come across as even more narcissistic than it already was, but I don’t think that would have been a bad thing. Her parents are interviewed very briefly early, and they both made a positive impression on me. So more of her and her family might have been a good idea.
In general I don’t think the interviews get all that deep. There are some emotionally strong moments, and there is some examination of Asian stereotypes and such, but I don’t feel the people are challenged as much as they could have been, or that we get inside them as much as we could have. Like I say, I like interviewing regular people about their lives, but there were stretches of this movie that dragged even for me.
Overall, The Grace Lee Project is a mostly lightweight affair, with a few funny moments and a few emotionally impactful moments. I can only give it a mild recommendation at most.