By Phil Boatwright
This was first posted in the Baptist Press
“Grace Unplugged” is the tale of a former rock star’s 18-year-old prodigal daughter who wants to find her own fame.
Grace Trey, portrayed by A.J. Michalka of “Super 8” and “The Lovely Bones” lineage, is a member of her dad’s praise and worship team, but the gifted singer and musician heeds the call of the secular music world. After she gets the music break of a lifetime and is thrust into the “real world,” her faith is quickly put to the test.
The film’s premise is certainly timely, as in reality we see former teen cable network stars forced to change their image for relevancy in today’s pop-culture that demands change over talent.
The makers have updated the prodigal son parable by changing the lead’s gender, and creating a father in need of as many lessons as his wayward child. The story is set in the music world, allowing Michalka to make full use of all her entertainment talents. She’s best known for her singing career as half of the duo Aly & AJ, renamed 78Violet.
Actress Shawnee Smith, who has personally tasted the bitter and sweet of show business, portrays in Grace Unplugged a loving Christian wife and mother. While the film focuses more on a father/daughter relationship, it also explores the downside of fame.
Smith too expresses hope that daughters across America see the movie.
“Somebody brought up Miley Cyrus last night. I hope she sees the movie,” Smith said. “I don’t know how she could watch it and not see how that world can molest your life. What’s dead somehow looks shiny. I remember being there. I relate to this story. I was in a rock band. I know that world.
“You feel [in the movie] the power of it. You quickly get onboard with that illusion,” Smith said. “And by film’s end, Grace sees what’s real and what’s truly satisfying. I hope all the Miley Cyruses see this film.”
The role is unique to Smith’s career, shaped by “Becker,” “Saw,” “Saw 2,” and “Easy Prey.”
“I was drawn to the film right away from reading the script. I wept,” Smith said. “There’s real substance to it. I just wanted to be a part of this movie. I loved the main character. I would be so happy for my daughter to be this woman. And I’m finally doing a movie she could actually see.”
Grace Unplugged is not afraid to mention the name Jesus. Perhaps most films do that, but here His name is not uttered in anger, but rather mentioned as a centerpiece in several characters’ spiritual lives. I’m sure this is the icing on the cake for devout Christian Michalka, to be the star of a movie meant to honor God, strengthen the body of Christ, and witness to members of an industry caught up in the Me-ism of celebrity.
The movie attempts to reveal the underbelly of the music industry, but in a family-friendly way. It adds a religious component, undoubtedly a real-life reality for former church singer Cyrus.
At a recent press junket in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to meet the movie’s writer and director Brad Silverman and its cast. What a pleasant surprise to discover that the film’s star, director and the producer are all followers of Christ, their openness concerning their faith deeply affecting other cast and crew.
The film’s faith connection is endearing and rare, Michalka said.
“Usually when I read a script, I look to see how I feel about the role, what drives the character. But with this script, it was really the faith behind it. And when I met Brad Silverman, and seeing his love for God and his passion for this film, it was so moving to me,” Michalka said. “I actually came home from the interview and cried. I was overwhelmed. It was so cool to be in a meeting in the dead center of Hollywood, but it had nothing to do with Hollywood. It had to do with the Lord. That’s rare.”
The film is more about light than darkness, Silverman said.
“I don’t want to glorify sin. I wanted it to be a heart issue. This girl has a heart change. She makes an intelligent decision for her. I didn’t want it to be about ‘how dark can I get this girl to go?'” Silverman said. “This is a coming-of-age story of a girl who has to wrestle with her heart, not a story on the evils of Hollywood. But I had to ask myself, ‘How am I going to tell this story in a PG way?’ Some people will say I didn’t go dark enough, but I don’t apologize for that.”
Kevin Pollak, who portrays a music agent/promoter, said focusing on the dark would cheapen the film.
“It cheapens [Grace Trey’s] decision and the audience’s experience if the music industry and her career represent hedonistic values. If it’s a true opportunity, a life opportunity that’s being experienced by her, then how much more difficult is that decision to choose family first? And faith?” Pollak said. “It’s only when given true opportunity that those decisions are more difficult to make. You just cheapen it all with a stereotypical dark side. It’s just too easy for her to say ‘What was I thinking? I’ve fallen prey to the demons,’ as opposed to ‘That’s what I thought I wanted.'”
Grace’s lesson in living her dreams leads to reconciliation with her father, her God, and her family, Pollak said.
One more theme that runs throughout the film is the question of “borrowed faith,” noted by producer Russ Rice.
“I hope the movie leads kids to examine themselves and their faith,” Rice said. “Do they own their faith, or is it merely borrowed from their parents?”
The film features the acting or feature film debuts of three music stars: Christian singer Jamie-Grace, American Idol Season 10 Finalist Pia Toscano, and an appearance by renowned Christian artist/songwriter and Grammy Award® winner Chris Tomlin.
Grace Unplugged will be released in theaters Oct. 4. For more information about the film and the companion book, “Own It” by Michael & Hayley DiMarco, visit http://www.graceunplugged.com/resources
In addition to writing for Baptist Press, Phil Boatwright reviews films for www.previewonline.org. He is also a regular contributor to “The World and Everything in It,” a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group.