After witnessing a stabbing upon leaving a movie theater, 10-year-old Carrie (Rylee Fansler) heads west to spend a summer with the family of her father’s friend in a squeaky clean Missouri town and recover from the “violent streets of Brooklyn.” Despite being absent from the majority of Connie Stevens’s directorial debut, Saving Grace B. Jones, Carrie serves as the observer of this tale largely concerning the family that houses her. Opening with the worrisomely large intertitle “Inspired by a True Story” (which also appears at the end of the film—in case you forget, or even dare to doubt, the absurd events that occur), this cumbersome and graceless 1950s-set period drama possesses the reactionary life insights and amateurish production values of a Lifetime soap.
The head of the household where Carrie is staying, Landry Bretthorst (Michael Biehn), decides it’s time to bring his only sister, Grace (Tatum O’Neal), home after 20 years of being locked up in the cuckoo’s nest and tries to assimilate her into his family and community. Despite the mention of a promiscuous past, Grace’s psychological history is mostly obscured, and without much backstory she remains a hollow construct of insanity. Suitably, the pious townspeople aren’t sure how to act around Grace, and treat her as if she’s an alien; instead of empathetically apprehending mental disease, Stevens validates the town’s close-minded and religion-fueled distrust and misunderstanding of mental illness by demonizing Grace as an extremely dangerous, incorrigible monster (with the ludicrous exception of single-handedly delivering a neighbor’s baby during a rainstorm, she mostly spazzes out helplessly, wielding scissors and flailing around in fields). It seems you can take the crazy person out of the asylum, but you can’t take the asylum out of the crazy person.
O’Neal’s twitchy performance doesn’t help: Sporting a Southern-fried accent, she expresses her character’s inner turmoil through a crass, audience-bombarding collection of hyper-mannered tics. While Stevens’s observation of psychosis is offensively risible, the garish, nostalgia-drenched scenes of adolescent rites of passage, such as Carrie going to her first school dance and making a mess while making dinner for the first time, aren’t even amusing in their cringe-worthiness, made even more unbearable by goofy child actors trying hard not to look in the camera. Unsure of its own identity, Saving Grace B. Jones incongruously shifts from pandering psychiatric melodrama to dorky coming-of-age twaddle, with a crudely offensive dash of thriller elements thrown in for poor measure. A falsely cathartic voiceover from Stevens, only heard but never seen as an older Carrie, concludes the ludicrous final act that involves unintentionally campy deaths and public shaming: “I have somehow reached a kind of peace with that friendly horror that is with me still. If you saw that summer in a movie, you’d never believe it happened.” You can say that again.