DVD Release Date: February 11, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: October 4, 2013 (limited)
Rating: PG (for thematic elements and brief teen drinking)
Genre: Faith/Family
Run Time: 118 min.
Director: Brad J. Silverman
Cast: AJ Michalka, James Denton, Kevin Pollak, Shawnee Smith, Michael Welch, Jamie Grace

In stark contrast to many films that fall under the "Christian" or "family-friendly" banner, Grace Unplugged is a movie with a message and strong production values. With compelling performances from the lead actors, a decent (read: mostly non-cringeworthy) script and cinematography that isn't embarrassingly dated, that’s practically cause for celebration, right?

Well, yes and no.

A great deal of care was taken in distinguishing Grace Unplugged from its predecessors and one can’t help appreciating the timeliness of examining fame, the cost of compromise and fractured father/daughter dynamics.

But as heartwarming as it can be, the trouble with Grace Unplugged, and why a good chunk of it probably won't resonate with many outside of the Church, is the troubling conclusion that’s ultimately drawn from Grace’s journey. Is the best way to please God and honor your faith to merely trade mainstream stardom for Christian superstardom as a worship leader who plays massive church arenas with Chris Tomlin instead of being salt and light in smoky clubs?

When the story begins, Grace is a pretty, conflicted 18-year-old with plenty of natural talent and charisma. A lover of music from the moment her father first gave her a guitar, she’s eager to share her passion with the world. Unfortunately, leading worship at her small Alabama church with her dad week after week causes Grace to feel stifled. Clashing over stylistic ambitions and what it means to praise God through song, there’s clearly a massive wedge between father and daughter.

See, as much as Johnny recognizes his daughter’s talent, he’s seen the proverbial wizard behind the curtain during his own wild years as a pop star. Though he hopes to save her from the whole sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll existence, she is still determined to make a name for herself—with or without his approval.

Interestingly enough, that opportunity happens much sooner than expected when Johnny’s former manager Frank Mostin (a well-cast Kevin Pollak, The Big Year) shows up. As it turns out, one of Johnny’s big hits is regaining popularity after it was performed on a televised talent show, and “Mossy” has been working the phones and garnering plenty of interest in reviving Johnny’s career. Trouble is, Mossy isn’t nearly persuasive enough, and Johnny flat-out refuses since he’s found Christ and turned his life around. But for Grace, who just happened to hear the whole conversation, it's the perfect window of opportunity.

After Johnny's rejection, Mossy is naturally pretty surprised to hear from Grace. For years, he’d been there for her father through successes and struggles, however, so he’s happy to help make her a star. So without even telling her parents who in her mind, probably wouldn’t understand anyway, Grace hi-tails it to Los Angeles, records her dad’s song, and before you know it, she’s got label interest, an image consultant and an imaginary boyfriend courtesy of “the fame machine.”

Even as determined as Grace is "to make it," she is immediately faced with troubling trade-offs. When her own songwriting efforts don’t yield much fruit, she's told she’ll be recording a track about a one-night stand instead (she refuses). Later, the pop star she's always admired tells her she'll have to use her body to gain attention while her manager and stylist suggest that racier clothes will be part of her future (she ultimately resists the urge to dress provocatively).

In the midst of wowing audiences with her confident vocals and feeling torn about “selling out,” a quasi-dorky intern who just happens to be a Christian, Quentin (Michael Welch of Twilight fame) arrives with a book to address her “heart issue.” Now I’m a big believer in God’s ability to move in mysterious ways, but there was something about that particular plot twist that felt far too easy and convenient. Part of the Christian life is wrestling with our beliefs—and here, Grace is spoon-fed exactly what she needs to do. With a book rather than thought-provoking conversation, no less.

Speaking of which, that’s precisely when the story takes its well-traveled turn toward predictability. Instead of even considering how Grace could be a Christian and a popular singer/songwriter, it was decided the only way her faith would remain strong was by immediately heading back to church.

Surely, there are plenty of believers (like the film's star AJ Michalka who talked open about that very thing at the press junket for Grace Unplugged) who manage to strike a balance between using their God-given gifts in the world without losing their soul in the process. While that clearly isn’t the direction the filmmakers wanted Grace’s story to take, another option wasn’t even debated or discussed.

And that’s when Grace Unplugged, as accomplished as it is, can’t help feeling like a missed opportunity. Instead of providing an intriguing window into how Christ-followers make crucial life decisions, it opts for the whole "safe for the family" routine—something that may please the parents of youth group kids but is still the path of least resistance that doesn’t necessarily help anyone who doesn’t already believe.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking depicted. On one occasion, Grace has clearly had too much to drink. References to Johnny’s past drug abuse.
  • Language/Profanity: None
  • Sex/Nudity: No sex or nudity. Grace is told that her body is her currency, and sometimes you have to spend it. But as much as she wants to “make it,” Grace eschews clothes/suggestive song lyrics that make her uncomfortable. Grace is given lingerie by her image consultant to wear when she “seals the deal” with her television star boyfriend, but that never ends up happening because Grace rejects his advances.
  • Violence: None

Publication date: October 3, 2013