Grace Unplugged: Review and Interview
- Thursday, August 15, 2013
I'm a fan of Grace Unplugged.
Similar to you, I've seen too many cheesy movies that are embarrassing to watch and recommend. Thanks to honest writing and sensitive directing, talented performers such as A.J. Michalka, James Denton and Kevin Pollock deliver a realistic offering about the strains Christian teenagers and families face as kids try to do something with what God has put in them. Also, singers Jamie Grace and Chris Tomlin add to the movie.
The lead character, Grace, has pop star talent and an opportunity to pursue it. Her dad wants her to have no part in it, having walked away from professional music himself years earlier to become a worship minister. Grace, who's already sneaking off to movies instead of going to youth group, rebelliously enters the world her father left behind. The rift that occurs between them only amplifies the rift in her soul.
This is a movie that will speak to the students sitting in the front and back rows of your youth group.
Michalka knows all about this firsthand, having grown up in a Christian home while entering the spotlight at a young age. She's one-half of the pop group 78Violet (formerly Aly and A.J.), has an impressive TV and movie acting career and is vocal about her journey with God even as a young adult in Hollywood.
YWJ: Do you have much or little in common with Grace?
A.J.: Probably more in common than not. Grace is a little more naïve about what she's getting herself into, though. I've been in the business a long time, know the ins and outs and have a great team surrounding me. Grace is starting her own career and path by herself, so it could turn scary if she's not careful. I feel as if I know what's right and wrong and am not willing to risk what I believe in for quick fame.
YWJ: So would you say this film is realistic in what you or other Christian artists face?
A.J.: It's a scary world full of sin, and you can't get around that whether you're in Hollywood or not. I've found the more you surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart and are looking out for you, the more you really can get around a lot of the stickier situations. I'm really close to my parents and my sister, and also have been blessed to have people around me who don't just say, "Yeah…sure…whatever makes you happy," but who say, "Let's think about this before you do that thing." That alone helps me figure out if this is going to be something pleasing to the Lord.
YWJ: How has that worked out—what do you sense it means to please God with your career?
A.J.: I feel as if Aly and I have been able to write music and inspire people with words that are uplifting and encouraging instead of "Get out there and party!" I think that's pleasing to God's eyes, so I always try to stay uplifting. People have come up to us and said, "That lyric you wrote helped me change how I view myself." When you hear that, you feel what you're doing is absolutely worth it.
YWJ: There seems to be a fear in this generation about being labeled negatively as a Christian, as if someone will say you're being preachy or trying to shove God down people's throats if you're clear about your faith. Have you struggled with that?
A.J.: In the beginning, I did a little bit because I knew I'd be expected to conform somehow into whatever role or opportunity I was walking into. I wondered, "Is it OK if I mention God or that I have a relationship with Him?" I don't want to offend people; yet at the same time, I'm not ashamed to let people know I love the Lord. It's not a matter of telling people they're horrible. It's witnessing—and you can be classy with how you do it.
YWJ: What about the other side of that temptation to conform…A comment one of the characters in the movie makes is that Grace shouldn't be shy about flaunting her body as an artist. What's your thought on that?
A.J.: Grace gets taken advantage of with that because there's a tension and a spotlight on her. I think that's one of the scariest things girls and guys who get into this business have to deal with on the fly, so you really need a core walk with God ahead of time. It's never been in my nature to live on the wild side or rebel, but I think people find this industry tempts them to let loose.
In tandem with Grace's journey with God and her career is a tension with her father. It's less about stereotypical legalism and more about him authentically trying to get his family to honor the Lord. Both characters process this dynamic throughout movie, ultimately finding each other backstage at a concert for a foundational heart-to-heart that is music to each other's ears.
James Denton offers this genuine approach as Grace's dad, although many will know him for his work as the hunky neighbor on "Desperate Housewives." Some may pigeonhole him for that role, but that only raises the hurdle this movie is trying to clear. There's a backdoor lesson for youth workers regarding why Denton took on this job.
J.D.: My mom worked for years as an editor for LifeWay while serving as a youth worker in our church. She taught youth Sunday School and so much more.
YWJ: So you grew up with a Christian background?
J.D.: Yeah, I was raised Southern Baptist. I was in church Sunday morning, Sunday night and at the fellowship supper every Wednesday night. My dad was a deacon, too.
YWJ: So what happened after all of that?
J.D.: When I graduated college, I intended to go to seminary…I was wide open to it and felt that's what God wanted me to do. The problem was every single door slammed in my face, even when I took on a job right out of college as a minister of music in a Methodist church. I went into Christian radio after that for a short while, but didn't feel I'd found my place there either. So I ended up in theatre in my late 20s, not sure what God had in mind.
YWJ: What perspective has that given you about life or your profession?
J.D.: It is a real liberal industry. You're always balancing something and are surrounded by a whole new group of people all at once. I now have friends from different ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, so you have to find a way to understand other people while at the same time interacting with what you believe spiritually. It's a tricky sort of path to walk.
The other big trap is feeling too important yourself. I see kids all the time who fall into thinking they're the center of the universe because they're on camera or a red carpet. For young kids going into this, it's quite overwhelming.
YWJ: Christianity certainly can be something people claim to further their career, whether it's a real estate agent attending church to network or a politician who claims Jesus to get votes. How do you see this being played out in Hollywood?
J.D.: I think people hide it. There's not much advantage professionally to being a Christian in L.A. other than the personal strength you get from it. You're not going to get any jobs by being a Christian, although it can be used in great ways when you find other Christians with whom to network.
YWJ: So…is it well with your soul?
J.D.: Things are good. I've been so blessed, I can't even describe it. This job is great…we've moved to Minnesota so I could be more focused on my family. Just being able to be here by being smart and saving every dollar has given me nothing to complain about.
If I'm completely honest, I did this movie hoping to pay a little back…to acknowledge that I didn't get to my low level of B-list celebrity on my own. God pushed me down this way. I hope it's a vehicle that gets people to wrestle personally with some of the great themes in this movie.
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