GRASSROOTS – SLIFF Review
Review by Dana Jung
For anyone who has visited a Disney theme park and ridden their fabulous monorail system, the new film GRASSROOTS will have a nice resonance. Based on the “mostly true” account of the Seattle, Washington city council race in 2001, GRASSROOTS uses the symbolic image of a clean-energy, aesthetically pleasing mass transportation system to explore the themes of passion for a cause, the state of post-9/11 politics, and the forces that impact social change.
Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs) is a struggling young journalist on the verge: on the verge of landing a dream job, on the verge of taking the relationship with his girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) to the next level, on the verge of moving out of the older house where he has several roommates to make ends meet. In between jobs, Phil half-heartedly agrees to help manage the campaign his friend Grant (Joel David Moore) is intent on running for city council. The basis for Grant’s zeal is simple: he wants to unseat the incumbent Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer), who is promoting a “light rail” (i.e., train) system for mass transit. For Grant, the issue is clear. McIver represents everything bad about American politics – a smooth-talking proxy for big business who is only interested in lining his own pockets to promote an ugly, polluting project at the expense of what would actually benefit the community – an expanded monorail. Their journey together from naive but impassioned private citizens to crowd-pleasing public figures makes up the bulk of the film.
Director Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Jake and Maggie) keeps the story flowing with lots of humor and some really magical moments depicting both the roadblocks and small victories that enliven this tale. Example: when Grant gathers his first supporters, in one of the film’s best scenes, an excited youth proclaims, “Hold my hair back while I spew truth!” The talented cast also makes the most of the underdog formula. Jason Biggs, shedding the last vestiges of his AMERICAN PIE persona, essays the difficult role of Campbell, a person sort of sleep-walking through life until this amazing opportunity is almost forced on him, and who slowly awakens to the very real – and addictive – power of political activism. Ambrose is good in whatever she does, but here has the rather perfunctory role of Campbells’ love interest. Cedric the Entertainer is also excellent as the politician McIver, all fake gravitas and great-sounding rhetoric. Supporting turns by Cobie Smulders (fresh from THE AVENGERS), Christopher McDonald, and Tom Arnold brighten up their brief scenes as well. But the star of the movie is Joel David Moore as Grant, who brings a blistering intensity to his portrayal of an eccentric and almost obsessively passionate individual. Whether agonizing over his first stumbling attempts at public speaking (“I sounded like Nixon!” he laments) or eloquently delivering emotional speeches (and he has many), Moore propels the film through to its bittersweet conclusion. GRASSROOTS ends just after the climactic election, but Gyllenhaal keeps the finale upbeat and inspiring. All the characters have been on a journey, and though the results were perhaps not what they expected, their participation in a social movement that hopefully educated and catalyzed idealism in others is the kind of thing that becomes the basis for change. And lasting positive change is what real politics is all about.
GRASSROOTS screens as part of the 21st Annual Whitaker Saint Louis International Film Festival on Saturday, November 10th at 8:45 PM and Sunday, Nov 11th at 6:45 pm. Both screenings are at the Plaza Frontenac Cinemas