Sophisticated, well-cast and heartfelt, “Grace Unplugged” is further proof that a little Hollywood sheen goes a long way in the faith-based film genre. But in blending the “kid corrupted by the music biz” formula with a story of core values put to the test, this engaging drama stumbles into many of the same pitfalls of its predecessors.
It’s largely humorless, and when you rub the rough edges off characters and situations to get that PG rating and the church going audience that comes with it, reality and depth are sacrificed. Even the villains can seem a little bland.
Grace Trey, played by AJ Michalka (“Secretariat,” “The Lovely Bones”) is the gorgeous teen daughter of a “one hit wonder” (James Denton) who stumbled into drugs and alcohol back when he topped the charts with his hit, “Misunderstood.” He found Jesus and purpose and got his life together, marrying Michelle (Shawnee Smith) and raising Grace, who now sings with his band at their Birmingham church, where he’s music pastor.
But Grace is forever upstaging him, seizing the spotlight and going all Taylor Swift on Dad. And dad isn’t having it.
“I have my OWN style!”
“It’s a WORSHIP service!”
Grace longs to be a pop starlet like her idol, Renae Taylor. And when Dad’s old manager (Kevin Pollack) shows up to offer him a comeback tour and Dad turns him down, the just-turned-18 Grace eschews college and flees to LA to “blow people away with my music.” She covers Dad’s one hit, and she’s on her way to glory.
But what kind of glory? Brad Silverman’s film keeps faith in the foreground as Dad (Denton is quite good, despite looking a tad too much like Lance Armstrong) tries to put his foot down with a rebellious teen. He’s a bit of a tyrant, like all dads. And Grace isn’t having it.
How far is she willing to go to “blow people away” with her talent? She lets herself be “managed,” going through an image makeover, “publicity dating” a notorious young Hollywood womanizer. He gives the sheltered church girl, who’s never heard of Rodeo Drive, her first drink. Her manager is picking her tunes for her.
“Your other songs, they’re not religious, right?”
And then there’s Quentin (Michael Welch of “The Twilight Saga”), the Christian office assistant at Grace’s new record company. He remembers her singing with her dad and gently reminds her of the values she seems to be abandoning.
Except she doesn’t. Timidly is the curse of Christian films, and this one is no exception. A few sips of champagne and a couple of slurred words, even for the child of an alcoholic, don’t constitute a steep fall. Tyrannical Dad isn’t that much of a tyrant. The assorted ruthless music folk aren’t that bad and the people Grace lets down (a best friend back home, a little boy she was mentoring in music) are underdeveloped and weak illustrations of how low she’s sunk.
But the music — especially “Misunderstood” — is pleasant enough, with that one-hit from the “one-hit wonder” sounding contemporary enough to get radio play in today’s Top 40.
And Michalka’s girl-next-door good looks and stage presence make up for some of the shortcomings of “Grace Unplugged,” which needed more movie to go with its message.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and brief teen drinking
Cast: AJ Michalka, James Denton, Kevin Pollack, Shawnee Smith, Michael Welch
Credits: Written and directed by Brad J. Silverman. A Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:49