Script's happy ending attracted movie's star

Gregory Smith was in a funk the afternoon he sat down to read the script for "Nearing Grace." It was a bad day on the set of TV's "Everwood," and any hope he'd had for getting off work in time to hook up with his buddies had been scuttled by a series of re-shoots and setbacks.

"When I got done reading it, I realized that I was skipping back to the set," he said. "I was smiling and high-fiving people. And I thought, 'If this movie can bring this feeling to me, then I want to help bring it to someone else.' "

It certainly wasn't what he expected after reading the first couple of pages. The story starts with his character, a high school student, delivering a tearful eulogy at his mother's funeral. But then the plot leapfrogs six months into the future, where the young man discovers that life goes on - if he's willing to let it.

"That's the happy ending that people are hoping for in real life," he said.

Co-starring with Smith and accompanying him on a recent promotional tour was Ashley Johnson (who, a decade ago, was one of the pint-sized stars of TV's "Growing Pains"). She plays Merna, Smith's best friend. At least, he considers her a friend; she'd like the relationship to take a more serious route.

"I liked the role because it reflects what a lot of teenagers are going through," she said. "Merna is looking for something that will make her happy."

The movie is based on a novel by Scott Sommer. Because characters inevitably are reconfigured for movie adaptations, some directors discourage actors from reading the books on which a film is based. In this case, director Rick Rosenthal left it up to the actors to decide what they wanted to do.

Both Smith and Johnson tracked down the book. In fact, they both did so even before auditioning for the movie.

"Anything you learn about the character is helpful," Johnson said.

Smith attacked it as if it were a homework lesson.

"I prepared this whole report on the book," he said. "And then I took the script and filled it up with Post-It notes and diagrams. When I went to the audition, I dropped the script and my notes came popping out. I didn't do it on purpose to impress Rick, but he did seem impressed."

'Nearing Grace'

2 1/2 stars

Rating: R for drug use, profanity, sex. Director: Rick Rosenthal. Cast: Gregory Smith, David Morse, Jordana Brewster, Ashley Johnson. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.