The Grace Lee Project resembles Alan Berliner's 2001 documentary The Sweetest Sound, in that both consider whether there's something special about a specific name. For The Sweetest Sound, Berliner called up as many "Alan Berliner"s as he could locate, in hopes of finding what they all had in common, but he also freely wandered off-topic, philosophizing about how and why we respond to our own names. The Grace Lee Project is far less ambitious. Director Grace Lee interviews a handful of people who share her name, and questions whether the stereotypes people have about women named "Grace Lee"—that they're all pleasant, petite, and studious—really holds true. She ponders what it means to be Asian-American, as well as a "Grace Lee."
But there's at least one major flaw in Lee's design. A movie about a bunch of similar young women would become fairly monotonous, so Lee focuses on the oddballs, like the Grace Lee who burned her high school down, the abused Grace Lee, and the Grace Lee who married a Black Panther and became a civil-rights activist. And she gets sidetracked by their stories, to the extent that she ends up interviewing their friends, or listening to them talk about their hobbies—even if it has nothing to do with "the project."
Lee gets closer to where she wants to go when she interviews a prematurely stressed-out teenage piano prodigy who's infatuated with Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings (because he changes personalities so freely), or when she explores why the name is so common. But even as Lee learns that a lot of Graces come from Christian homes, she avoids digging into the origins of their faith, or asking why Koreans in particular have converted so readily. Instead, Lee follows the la-di-da model of first-person documentarians like Michael Moore, making the movie more about herself and her own "whaddaya know" reactions to the other Grace Lees.
Lee introduces herself by insisting that we're probably surprised to find out she's from Missouri, which doesn't say much about her opinion of her audience's level of cultural enlightenment. And when she talks about Grace Lee the activist, she calls her "the first old person I've ever met who actively reaches out to young people," which means she's either shockingly inexperienced, or trying to project herself as an audience-friendly cipher. She acts amazed by her own work, in hopes that we'll be too. To help the matter along, Lee underscores the action with a Mickey Mouse score, cutesy animation, and a relentlessly chipper tone. Her technique is pretty much everything that's wrong with documentary filmmaking today.