The Christian movie market has grown immensely since the breakout success of former teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron's film "Fireproof" in 2008. Most of these films have a strong religious base or undertone, which means they usually target a very niche audience. "Grace Unplugged" bucks that trend by trying to appeal to a much wider audience than its genre predecessors.
The film centers on teenager Grace (AJ Michalka), who plays guitar and sings gospel hymns at church with her father Johnny (James Denton). Johnny is a former musician who had one big hit before he flamed out, succumbing to the drug and alcohol temptations that are an unfortunate part of the entertainment industry. He eventually overcame his addictions and demons and returned to Alabama, where he is now raising Grace. She is a good daughter but definitely has a rebellious streak, which worries Johnny because he is afraid that streak will get her into trouble.
When Grace decides to start fibbing and sneaking out to go see movies rather than rehearsing with the church choir, Johnny puts his foot down. Grace is tired of being a hymn singer and longs for the bright lights of singing stardom. She heads to Los Angeles, where she is pursued by a music promoter named Mossy (Kevin Pollak). She begins to write her own songs, and Mossy records them with the aim of getting fresh-faced Grace on the airwaves. It turns out that Mossy was Johnny's former manager back in the day, and he decides that Grace should cover her dad's old hit song, updating it for today's audience. It could potentially be a hit among several demographics, the thought of which has Mossy practically salivating.
At first, Grace thinks this is the answer to her many prayers, and she basks in the limelight. At Mossy's urging, she begins singing more secular songs and abandons the pious existence she had back in Alabama. Just as stardom looks to be within reach, Grace meets intern Quentin (Michael Welch), who works for the record label she just signed with. Quentin is a sweet, polite young man who takes an interest in Grace, especially because she is a Christian like he is. They have an instant attraction, but fame keeps pulling them apart. Quentin seems determined to woo her, however.
When Grace's cover song becomes a hit, she begins to feel the pressure of her newfound notoriety. She realizes that there are two things that could comfort her at this point—her father Johnny and her faith. Unfortunately, she has left both of those behind in pursuit of fame. She reaches out to her father and to God to forgive her, with Quentin helping along the way. Together, they help her reclaim the person she was before arriving in Los Angeles, and a happy ending complete with a return to Alabama and church singing is inevitable.
"Grace Unplugged" (watch trailer) is definitely a faith-based movie, but religion and God are not discussed at every turn, which is why the film has a better chance than most in this genre of becoming a crossover hit. Even secular people who are not particularly religious can appreciate the coming-of-age story at the heart of the film, especially since Michalka is so likable. She has had plenty of time to hone her stage presence as one part of the singing sister duo 79Violet, and it shows. It can't be easy for a relatively new actor like Michalka to shoulder the weight of an entire production on her narrow shoulders, but she manages to do it seemingly effortlessly.
The other big winner in "Grace Unplugged" is the soundtrack, much of which is sung by Michalka herself. The songs are spread throughout the film enough that the movie can't be classified as a bona fide musical. Instead, it's a drama with lots of music in it. This distinction is another reason why the film has a chance at crossover success—even people who don't go see musicals will still like the pop-savvy singles.
The story of a teen who leaves home only to return with a newfound respect for where she came from is not a new story. This story has been told dozens of times across multiple genres of film, from comedies to drama. A film with this type of plot has to set itself apart, and "Grace Unplugged" does just that with a winning lead actress and a solid soundtrack that combine to make it worth a watch.