Grace Unplugged is a prodigal daughter tale concerning the talented 18-year-old child of a former rock star who wants to find her own fame. Grace Trey (AJ Michalka - Super 8, The Lovely Bones) is a member of her dad’s praise and worship service, but the gifted singer and musician in her own right heeds the call when the secular music world beckons. After the teenager gets the music break of a lifetime and is thrust into the "real world," her faith is quickly put to the test. The premise of the film is certainly timely as we see former teen cable net stars being forced to change their image in order to stay relevant in a pop-culture that demands change over talent. It is indeed a movie Miley Cyrus should see. You too.
The makers have updated the prodigal son parable by changing the lead’s gender, with the father needing to learn as many lessons as his wayward child. The story is now set in the music world, allowing actress AJ Michalka, best known for her singing career as half of the duo Aly & AJ, more recently known as 78Violet, to make full use of all her entertainment talents. And it’s a film not afraid to mention the name Jesus. Oh, most films do that, but here His name is not uttered in anger, but rather mentioned as a centerpiece to the spiritual life of several characters. Being a devout Christian herself, I’m sure this is the icing on the cake for Ms. 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.
Grace Unplugged attempts to reveal the underbelly of the music industry, but in a family-friendly way. Furthermore, it adds a religious component, something former church singers like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus must have faced in real life.
At a recent press junket in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to meet the cast of Grace Unplugged and their director. What a pleasant surprise to discover that the star, director and the producer were followers of Christ, their openness concerning their faith having a deep-felt effect on other cast and crew.
AJ Michalka: “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 [the film’s writer and director], and seeing his love for God and his passion for this film, it was so moving to me. 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.”
Brad Silverman: “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. 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?’”
Kevin Pollak (who plays a music agent/promoter): “It cheapens her 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 chose family first. And faith. 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.’”
True, it is more a story about a father/daughter relationship, but the film also explores the downside of fame. And nobody knows this better than actress Shawnee Smith (Becker, Saw, Saw 2, Easy Prey), who has personally tasted the bitter and the sweet of show business.
Shawnee Smith (in a very different role for the actress, playing a wise, loving Christian wife and mother): “I was drawn to the film right away from reading the script. I wept. 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.
“I relate to this story. I was in a rock band. I know that world. Somebody brought up Miley Cyrus last night. I hope she sees the movie. 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. You feel the power of it. You quickly get onboard with that illusion. And by film’s end, Grace sees what’s real and what’s truly satisfying. I hope all the Miley Cyruses see this film.”
Pollak: “It depicts how Grace learns not only how to live the dreams her talent allows her to pursue, but how she ultimately does it in a way that leads to reconciliation with her father, her God, and her family.”
Smith: “I love the fact that it doesn’t beat you over the head with its message. But it is a movie about truth and love and honest father/mother/daughter relationships. Oh gosh, if I could be in that marriage, I’d be so happy.”
The picture contains one more theme that runs throughout – that of the question of “borrowed faith.”
Russ Rice (the film’s producer): “I hope the movie leads kids to examine themselves and their faith. Do they own their faith, or is it merely borrowed from their parents?”
Michalka: “I made a decision when I was six years old and rededicated my life when I was older. I feel it was my decision, not just because my parents went to church. Now I enjoy going to church, even without my parents. I have a personal relationship with Him, it’s not just because this is what my parents do.”
Grace Unplugged will be released in theaters on October 4, 2013. 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. Written and directed by Brad J. Silverman (No Greater Love). For more information about the film, and the companion book, “Own It” by Michael & Hayley DiMarco, go to http://www.graceunplugged.com/resources
Real, timely and profound, this is an enjoyable film that may very well lead to fulfilling family discussions on the drive home.
In addition to writing for Baptist Press, Phil Boatwright is also a regular contributor to "The World and Everything in It," a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group.