AJ Michalka is a Christian musician in her own right, but in Grace Unplugged, she plays a young lady who longs to transition from church worship musician to full-time superstar. Grace longs to be respected and accepted by her rockstar-turned-worship leader father (James Denton) and mother (Shawnee Smith). But her father’s concerns about the rock’n’roll lifestyle prevent him from accepting her desires to explore writing non-worship music and playing in non-faith-based settings, leading to her departure from home.
Grace Unplugged plays out like “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” in musical talent long form. We watch Grace engaging people of faith by her father’s side, and we see her start to figure out that maybe she has some gifts that could be used for more than ‘just’ inside of a worship service. When her dad’s old manager (Kevin Pollack) shows up, fresh on some raw conversations about her future, Grace is drawn to the lifestyle of fame and fortune in Hollywood.
Grace gets all of the negative, fame cliches in a middle third of the film. She is given a new name, finds fame and depressing isolation, sees that people want to be with her for her fame and not for her personality, discovers that money can’t really fulfill her, etc. She shuns her family, her old friend, and begins to see that the whole process is skewed toward ‘producing’ stars.
Honestly, I found myself siding with Grace for most of the film. Sure, she’s pursuing something that isn’t healthy (the way it plays out) but doesn’t she have a right to explore her own gifts and graces? Isn’t one of the problems in the church today that for too long, we’ve watched others define what was sacred and what was secular, when maybe it’s about both and neither? Maybe Grace is right to want to reach a bigger stage, and maybe she needs her family to support her so that she’ll be her best.
I’ve been notoriously hard on Christian movies; that is, I’ve often been unimpressed by those movies that said they were Christian to play to a Christian audience. But this one, with Michalka reasonably presenting a young musician trying to find her way, gives us a legitimate look at the cost of fame, without getting too preachy. (Seriously, it IS preachy, but not any more than a Lifetime original that wants us to support schools, or end domestic violence. This preaching point just involves the use of our gifts.)
Sure, there are segments that play out in church, or include prayer or mentions of God. But ultimately, this is about us recognizing that we have gifts to be used and working to decide how to use them. Anyone with a dream, anyone with a passion, anyone with detractors can relate to the questions that Grace Unplugged raises. And anyone with relationships that need reconciled can admit that the only thing that can fix them is genuine forgiveness.