Allow me to say something at the beginning of this review, in case people think I’m trying to be overly negative. Grace Unplugged is probably one of the best “Christian” films I’ve seen. The acting is great, the script is decent, and the movie well made. You can take your evangelical family and you will get a safe, non-offensive movie going experience.
And that’s the problem.
Grace Unplugged follows the story of eighteen-year-old Grace Trey (AJ Michalka) who wants to spring free from her father, Johnny Trey (James Denton), a one-time pop-star who gave up “secular” music to become a worship leader. The two clash over music style, worship, and the desire for “something more” out of life. Into this mix comes Johnny’s former manager, Frank Mostin (Kevin Pollak), who tries to get Johnny to revive his career. When Johnny refuses, Grace calls up Mostin for an audition and runs off to Hollywood to follow her dream. While there, she is pressured to “compromise” her Christian values by going through the “fame machine.” After meeting a goofy, former rebel turned Christian guy (who gives her a Christian book to fix her, more on that later), she realizes she should reconcile with her father, apologize to her friends, leave the “secular” music industry, marry goofy Christian rebel guy, and perform, er, play in worship concerts with Chris Tomlin.
Deep breath… So where to begin?
As I said, I believe this might be the finest “Christian” movie ever made. A.J. Michalka did a fantastic job as Grace, and Kevin Pollak, being his ole Kevin Pollakish self (a very good thing), gives a nuance to Mostin, the former manager. Brad Silverman, the writer and director, did a fine job handling and shaping his vision to put it on screen.
So, what is my problem with this film? The answer to that is very easy. I wanted way more than I got out of the story. Silverman dares to raise a bunch of interesting and probing questions about faith, fame, and the dangers of celebrity. He gives us an amazing set for those questions by having Mostin, Johnny Trey’s manager, say to him, “Remember when I cleaned you up, picked you up from strange hotel rooms and got you sober? Why can’t you do something for me?” In doing so, Silverman starts to scratch at the possibility that Trey’s holier-than-thou attitude might not be so grand. He starts to look at the question, “Is evangelical celebrity subculture any better than the “secular” celebrity subculture?”
Sadly, Silverman turns away from these important questions by answering them with the same ole cringe worthy evangelical tropes: evangelical celebrity subculture is the answer to the “secular” celebrity subculture. We can fight that culture by providing our “own” stars, our “own” experts, and our “own” product placements in movies.
Silverman said in the production notes, and again at the press junket I attended, “I didn’t want to make a movie about: Alabama Christian music good, Hollywood pop music bad. 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.”
The problem with that statement is that is EXACTLY the sort of movie he made. If Grace reconciled with her father and then went back to fight for her music, then he could have made the above statement in a way that would ring true. Instead, Grace runs away from the mean ole secular world, helps start (with her goofy “rebel” fiancé) a “Christian” label, and goes on to become an evangelical worship superstar with Chris Tomlin. Silverman doesn’t leave us any doubt on how he wants us to think: “Alabama Christian music good.”
I wished it would be different. I wished for an alternate ending to this film. I wanted Grace to go back to Hollywood, storm Mostin’s office and say, “These are the songs I’m going to do!” I wanted Grace to be a real artist, who fights for her message, her art, and her faith. All she does is cut and run. She is a coward and therefore not a very worthy role model for young Christian girls (in my opinion).
When pressed about this very thing at the press conference, Silverman responded, “I just didn’t think that was her journey.”
As an artist, I can respect his answer. Indeed, if that is the film he wanted to make, I’m all for it. To Silverman’s credit, Trey’s manager is not really portrayed as evil, nor are some of the Hollywood folks other than the D-Bag TV star who is paid to “seduce” Grace. Still, I can’t bring myself to let Silverman off the hook because of the evangelical “product placement” in the film.
The goofy rebel boyfriend gives her a book (Own It) telling her that she has “a heart issue.” Sigh, yes, a book, the typical evangelical Christian thing to do when someone is “struggling.” Then, Chris Tomlin appears in the film, the poster boy for “evangelical worship celebrity subculture.” So, in case you’re following along, the film ends with evangelical language, praising evangelical culture, and convincing NO ONE who is not in that world. I’m sure it will be a big hit among youth groups and the younger college crowd. That’s about it, because no one else will understand the “insider” lingo.
So, again, Grace Unplugged, fine evangelical film for the Christian family. I just couldn’t contain my disappointment at an opportunity lost to make it a fantastic and daring film, as all Christian art should strive to be…