Movie Review: Grace Unplugged

Movie Review: Grace Unplugged March 20, 2014

This film drew quite a bit of Christian buzz when it came out last year, and it focuses on the music industry, so I thought I’d check it out and review it for you guys. Here’s the premise: Johnny Trey, a one-time one-hit rock star, has left the Hollywood life behind him, kicked drugs, and settled down in a small town to raise a family. Now he serves as a worship pastor at his church. His daughter, 18-year-old Grace, shows musical promise but chafes under her father’s strict regulations for the band. When daddy’s old manager offers him a new record deal after a cover of his classic sugar-stick goes viral, he smiles and declines easily. But Grace decides to do her own cover of the newly popular hit and e-mails it to “Mossy.” Mossy likes what he hears, and after yet another fight with dear old Dad, you can guess what happens next: Yep, little miss evangelical-teen-with-daddy-issues packs her bags and heads for Hollywood! Just write the rest of the script yourself from there and you probably won’t be far off from the real one.

Okay, so I’m being a bit snarky. I did genuinely like some things about this film, so let’s list some Pros before we get into the Cons:
* The character of the father. I really, really liked this character—both the way he was written and the way he was acted. In fact, I liked him so much that I found it hard to sympathize with Grace’s whining, and I kind of wanted to pull some of her pretty, pretty hair out when she bad-mouthed him behind his back. Maybe I just don’t “get” whiny teenagers, but I was always rooting for Team Dad in their arguments. When Grace skips youth group for a movie, and worse, she lies about it to her mother, Dad is NOT happy about “that little song and dance you gave your mother.” Actor James Denton believably conveys deep love, anger and hurt as Trey’s little girl grows up and rejects him. Unlike some of the other characters, he actually seemed like a real person, with real emotional layers.
* I appreciated the unflattering, but  probably 90% accurate portrayal of how the pop music business actually works (except that Grace hops on a tour bus before she’s chosen and recorded more than one song, which simply doesn’t make sense). Her fashion designer is also kind of over the top (we get it, in American movies a British Accent alwaysalways = Bad). But when Dad shakes his head sadly and says, “Oh, you are not ready for this,” he’s more right than she can imagine. All that juvenile arrogance evaporates as she quickly realizes she’s not in Kansas anymore. Mossy, played by Kevin Pollak, fairly oozes cynicism. Grace asks him to make her a star, and he works to give her exactly what she wishes for, even if it means setting up a celebrity date with an unscrupulous teen heartthrob to boost iTunes sales of her single. Whether or not she’ll like how it turns out in the end, well, that’s her problem, not his. However, I liked the fact that they showed Mossy brushing away his niggling conscience in a couple moments. I also agreed with the predictable but completely right choice Grace does ultimately make. One Christian reviewer complained that Grace is a “coward” and a “bad role model,” because she returns to the “safe” confines of her church instead of trying to balance faith and artistic integrity with a career in “the biz.” I agree with the director that this would have been completely wrong for her character. Being a Christian in entertainment will always involve some sort of compromise, and if you have a shaky faith and a tenuous relationship with your family to boot, the combination spells disaster.
* The script was pretty solid for the most part. It flowed more naturally than some other Christian films, like October Baby. I thought they handled awkward moments between characters especially well.
* You can’t have a Christian movie without a Nice Young Christian Guy, but in this case I thought the Nice Young Christian Guy was done well. As an intern at the label where Grace is trying to make her start, he keeps bumping into her at some of said awkward moments and touches her with his genuineness. And coincidentally, he knows her father from several years back. When he describes the life-changing impact Trey had on him, she begins to see things in a different light.
Now let’s talk about…
*Terrible, terrible title. It’s cutesy, ugly and makes less sense the more you think about it. So this is about a girl named Grace, who plays acoustic guitar, but yes, we get the pun, it’s also about grace, small “g.” So the million dollar question is, what does it mean for grace, little ‘g,’ to be “unplugged”? I’m thinking “showers” of grace, so maybe I should visualize shower water that’s filling up the tub until God unstops the drain. Or something.
*As I mentioned already, I simply didn’t like Grace that much. I cared about her pretty much just because her dad cared about her, and I’m not sure that’s how the director wanted me to feel. When we’re introduced to her, she’s a mouthy, spoiled brat. On the other hand, I have to admit that she’s probably a realistic character. And one can’t help feeling a little sorry for her once she bites off more than she can chew. The film-makers have her dad second-guess himself and even apologize for “being hard on her,” which again, is completely realistic parental behavior. But was he really? The film-makers imply that he may have “pushed her away,” but if anything her persistent bad attitude is proof that daddy wasn’t draconian enough in her formative years. (Also, insert ironic shout-out to public schools here.)
*The trailer implies that Grace gets into far more trouble than she actually does RE: TV Punk, but while I appreciate the directors’ discretion in not having anything inappropriate in the script, I have to admit that Grace’s actual moral turning-point was rather bland and anti-climactic.  All she has to do is read a Christian book, fortuitously handed to her by the aforementioned Nice Young Christian Guy. And just like that, she’s emboldened to turn down the songs being offered to her and walk away from her dream of being a mainstream pop star. Top marks for the message, but does the story-telling rise to the same level? In my opinion, good story-telling allows the characters’ choices to arise naturally from the story, minus product placement. To be fair, the book isn’t ALL there is to it, and there are some story elements contributing to her choice, but the whole thing still felt a little too convenient, a little artificial.
*We need to talk about the music.
When Grace releases a music video for her cover of Dad’s hit “Misunderstood,” we see Dad watching it on Youtube. After it finishes, he turns to his wife and says,  “She’s lame. I mean really.
Oh who am I kidding, of course he doesn’t say that. Of course he says she’s incredible. Really. And throughout the film, it’s just assumed that the viewer will say the same thing. Every other scene shows some character hammering home the fact that this girl is “gifted in ways I can’t even describe!!!”
Methinks the film-makers do protest too much. Grace is played by an indie teen pop star named A. J. Michalka, whose voice is youthfully clear and pretty but unremarkable. She and her sister Aly were raised in a Christian home but formed a successful Disney channel duo some years back (thankfully while maintaining their faith, unlike their male counterparts the Jonas brothers). I wondered how such a plain vanilla voice could have had such a successful mainstream career until I listened to the duo’s music. After sampling such Shakespearean gems as “Like Whoa” and “Potential Breakup Song,” I realized, “Ohhhh, this is that techno dance-pop junk where vocal talent is either non-existent or completely smothered in Auto-tune. Check!” I found a grand total of one song, recorded solo by A.J. for the Disney movie Secretariat, that did not make my ears bleed: In fairness, A. J. does have some talent, and the music she sings in Grace Unplugged has the virtue that it lets her own voice come through, which I like better than her Autotune voice. And yet I was thoroughly sick of “Dad’s hit single” after hearing it played and replayed incessantly throughout. Also, the song Grace writes and performs at the end (featured below) is decent but musically dull. And I actually did feel a bit of sympathy for Grace at the beginning when she had to strum her way through the painfully boring worship set (sorry, never could get into Matt Redman’s non-tunes). One of her complaints is that Dad won’t let her spice up the arrangements, so when they’re happily reunited and opening for Chris Tomlin two years later, they perform “You Never Let Go” again, this time with an edge! Great, wake me when it’s over. The ONLY moment I was moved by the music in this film was when Dad visits Grace as she’s wavering on the edge of leaving Los Angeles, and they play an understated guitar duet of “It is Well” together. That was actually quite nice.
Bottom line
This film could have been better, but it could also have been worse. I wanted to like it more as someone who loves music, but ultimately found that whole aspect unsatisfying. Since the movie revolves around its music, this greatly reduced my enjoyment of it. However, that doesn’t mean that there were no redeeming qualities. The dialogue and acting between father and daughter was convincing. The slimy manager was very well played. I should also mention that Jamie Grace does a nice turn as the supportive but concerned best friend.  The script wasn’t bad. I had no burning desire to see it twice, but I’m almost inclined to recommend it just for James Denton’s fine performance as the father. Watch the trailer and music video for yourself to decide if it’s worth your time.
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  • Michael A. Coughlin

    Thanks for the review.
    I watched it Monday night because I had a free redbox rental, and I loved it. I avoided it when it was first promoted because of previous sadness as the result of high expectations of “Christian” films based on the production company’s over-promotion.
    I can’t disagree with your review at all, other than I’m not as critical musically as you are so I sorta just enjoyed it all just fine. As usual, my allergies acted up at the end. {eye watering}
    I would actually buy this movie if my kids wanted to own it.

  • Yeah, it’s probably one of the better movies of its genre out there. Definitely good for the whole family.

  • John Situmbeko

    I’ve not seen the movie, but based on your review, it sure sounds very similar to another christian movie called Preacher’s Kid. A young girl lives her father against his will, goes into “christian” showbiz (which she discovers is just plain showbiz in christian guise, but chooses to stay anyway), makes terrible choices (falls for a playboy who uses and abuses her), regrets, goes back to daddy, gladsome reunion, the end. Its also a musical, with black gospel (since it’s an African American movie) and RnB. Oh, and there’s also that Nice Young Christian Guy. Which makes me question the originality of the movie in review.

  • John Situmbeko

    Leaves (good grief)

  • You’re right, it does sound similar, except possibly better. I looked up some reviews, and it sounds like they allow more Christians to mess up in the story, even the father. Not that I promote the “Bwahaha, Christians have dirty little secrets too” attitude, but I just enjoy more complex stories. The father in Grace Unplugged is done well for the kind of character he is, but it sounds like the bishop in the black gospel story actually temporarily rejects his daughter, which gives it a darker flavor.

  • John Situmbeko

    The bishop, in a desperate attempt to stop his daughter from leaving him alone (because he loves her and because he has health issues and relies on her), threatens to disown her if she leaves but he doesn’t actually do it. Preacher’s Kid does have a solid “prodigal son comes home” message. The daughter really learns the hard way that both the Devlin (her abusive boyfriend) and the Devil are liars, that she is what her father (and Father) says she is. A bit cheesy when that’s added in the script, but surprisingly effective at putting across the intended message, her worth is not determined by her worldly achievements or the worth attached to her by the world, but by God’s great achievements for her and in her. But the movie does go a bit overboard in showing the “prodigal son” lifestyle, the non christian part of the movie, and that’s the part that makes a lot of people, including myself, question its “christian” tag. It also raises this question: How far can a christian movie go at portraying worldly lifestyles and not be too vivid in its portrayal for its intended audience?
    Grace Unplugged looks mild, and I think that alone makes it worthy of a christian label. There clearly is an absence of a shirtless man singing some slow secular RnB song while girls caress his bare chest, unlike in the Preacher’s Kid, which I think is good for a christian audience. It is hard for christian movie makers to make movies that successfully portray the realities of a sinful world as mildly as possible, therefore the few that succeed should be commended.