I am cynical about entertainment that is marketed to the mainstream and labeled Christian or faith-based, and there’s a reason for that.

… a lot of it is bad.

Sure, there is the Veggie Tales franchise… fun, educational, and sometimes downright brilliant. And there was The Passion of the Christ, but as excellently done as that was, it was like being beaten over the head (painful and life-changing), so it’s not exactly on my frequently played list. Occasionally we get a gem like The Blind Side or Walk the Line or even Angels and Demons or Constantine (I will be happy to make these arguments some other day), that isn’t overtly Christian in its message, but the message shines through anyway. (I had a hard time coming up with those examples. Surely there are more…!)

But for every one of those, we have a Left Behind…or a Joyful Noise… movies that are so cheesy (the former) or so blatantly cliche or even disrespectful to living a Christian life (the latter) that I’d rather disassociate myself with them than talk about them at all.

I also want to note here that I am talking about mainstream entertainment. I don’t consider movies like Courageous to be mainstream. There might be some crossover, but these movies are mainly going to appeal to churchgoers. 

grace-image7Bring on the email invitation to a screening of Grace Unplugged that was sent to our church staff this week. A free movie? Check. A movie featuring a Taylor Swift-esque teenage girl, original music, and a former rock star Dad? Check. (This upped my intrigue considerably). Along with two other families in our church, we went.

You know how you know in the first few minutes of a movie if you are going to like it, hate it, or tolerate it? That happened. And I knew… I was going to like this movie. What was surprising to me? I identified with, was touched by, and absolutely loved this movie. I have been Grace, I have been Grace’s parents, and I, too, have been touched by the grace that is the thread through them all.

Grace Unplugged is the story of an eighteen year old girl, an only child of a worship pastor who was once a one-hit rock icon. The Dad, Johnny Trey, has distanced himself completely from that past and enjoys a quiet existence with his wife and daughter. Grace and Dad lead worship together at church, but it’s clear from the first scene of the movie (which is cleverly communicated through facial expressions) that they don’t jive musically anymore. He wants to keep things pretty straight-laced, and she wants to set them free.

Enter plenty of teenage angst, nothing new, nothing far removed from Ariel and her dear ol’ preaching daddy in Footloose. Except around this time, Mossy also enters. He is Johnny’s former manager, and through a series of “only in Hollywood” events that are somewhat believable because of our reality show/You Tube age of entertainment, Grace ends up in Los Angeles with a record deal, an AR rep, a sizeable advance, a music video, and plenty of… new angst.

I won’t tell you how it all ends (I will say it is not totally predictable), but because I think this movie is so worth your time, I’m going to tell you why this stands out as a quality movie~

GU__039111. Christians are people, too
How many TV episodes have you watched in which the protestant character was a freak of some kind? Hollywood makes fun of everything from prayer to intentional virginity as though those behaviors are alien or sinister or unheard of. Characters are often portrayed as one-dimensional, as though being a Christian means we exist in a tunnel of our beliefs and nothing else matters to us. Guess what? We dress like normal people. We argue like normal people. We have friendships, dreams, contentions, jobs, and desires like normal people. Grace Unplugged got this right all the way through, and that, simply put, impressed the crap out of me. (Yep. Even my pastors say “crap”).

Of note: the pastor and his wife (played by Chris Ellis and Mary Shaw) were friends of Johnny and Michelle, Grace’s parents. Though they were dressed a bit formally, they were also portrayed as human… warm, gracious, knowing, everyday people, who offered friendship and wisdom to a hurting family without thumping a Bible or quoting a bumper sticker. They were only in the movie for a few scenes, but I loved them.

Another favorite little subplot was Michelle’s struggle out of the spotlight. Her husband was obsessed with their daughter’s career and her rebellion, and though Michelle was quiet and prayerful in her reaction, she was also determined. She wanted her husband’s attention and his love. You go, girl. Get yours. Christian women have needs, too!

2. Christians do not live a life of constant extremes
One of my favorite scenes in the movie was a small one, but it involved Grace LYING to her parents and SKIPPING YOUTH GROUP to go to… the movies, alone. Why did I appreciate this so much? Because pastor’s kids or Christian kids are often portrayed in media and in society as all good or all bad, and that is such an unfair picture. So many other movies would have shown her skipping and going to a bar or meeting up with some skeezy guy, and while that happens sometimes, most of the time, the decisions kids make that go against their parents are more innocent than that. They are striving for independence and identity, not necessarily hellfire and brimstone.

GU__026713. Established actors are capable of playing Christians
It was good to see familiar faces in this movie, James Denton (Johnny) and Kevin Pollack (Mossy) being the most familiar. And while I had personally not heard of AJ Michalka before, she has been around, and her portrayal of Grace was lovely and solid, as were her musical performances. I didn’t once feel like I was being pandered to, or that I was watching someone’s daughter get a chance at her big career. And I’m sorry, but it was nice to have a break from Kirk Cameron. Seriously.

I should also mention here that newish Christian contemporary star Jamie Grace has a small role in the movie as Grace’s BFF. I appreciate the use of Jamie in a small role (it was her first acting role, and she was passable, but not earth-shattering). This allows for some name recognition in the church-going community without putting someone in a starring role who would not have been successful. Kudos to the movie makers here.

4. A good movie stirs conversation
We brought our 5.5 and almost-7 year old daughters to this movie. Our youngest was enthralled by the music, and as she is a fellow blond with a guitar and an attitude, her dad and I could totally see her going the way Grace does. Our 7-year-old leaned up to me at one point and asked, “Who is wrong? The daddy or the girl?” I told her, “They both kind of are… we will talk about it later.” I love that my child was noting the family dynamics at play, and I will have the opportunity to reinforce that parents love our kids a lot, but we don’t always get it right. I appreciate the kind of entertainment that opens up the door for heart checks and heartfelt discussions. In this case, family relationships are forefront. That time of transition from adolescence to adulthood is hard – on kids and their parents. When Johnny looks up and tells God, “She’s yours now,” I was rocked… because I have had to have that conversation with God about ALL my kids, even the little ones.

5. A life of faith permeates our actions, all the time
Perhaps this seems contradictory to points one and two, but it is not. I personally enjoy a relationship with Christ and a relationship with pop culture, but one will always trump the other. When you are a believer in Christ, His teachings and His character affect everything about you… to different degrees because we are in different places on our journeys. I love how this was shown in the nuanced reactions of Grace to things like alcohol, provocative dress, and manipulative relationships. She wasn’t all in or out… she struggled with these complex issues, with trying to balance what her heart knew to be the right thing and what her own intense dreams had convinced her she needed. So she drank a little, and she kinda of liked it, but she didn’t become an alcoholic, she didn’t drink and drive, and she didn’t sign up for AA and Christian counseling after a few weeks of social drinking . Sometimes, we need to calm down and trust that people, even our kids, will figure things out because the Holy Spirit – the voice of the Father – their relationship with Christ (pick your favorite/they’re all the same) IS leading and guiding. Some people listen too late, but most people are not going to listen to finger-pointing and craziness.
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Another fine example of this was the character of Quentin, played by Michael Welch. I admit: I loved him. I loved him in a “I wish I had known him when I was 18/I hope my daughters know him when they are 18” kind of way. He was sincere, helpful, and kind. When he said, “My mom made these cookies for you” and “I’m praying for your song,” it wasn’t hokey… it was sweet. It wasn’t, Grace, you’re supposed to be a Christian. Quit acting like a pagan and get to the altar. It was, I see you’re out of your comfort zone and exploring, and getting close to a dangerous place, and I’m here to point you toward safety, ok?

6. Chasing our dreams/art is not a sin
Rod and I related to this movie on the level of entertainment versus {music} ministry. We have been involved in both. We have followed our own dreams, and we have followed God, and we have tried hard to find the merging of the two, and sometimes we have failed, and by His grace, we have come to a good place. But here’s the deal, folks: God made us. He gives us the talents and drive that we have. I know we can get lost in those things and glorify ourselves, but there is nothing abjectly wrong with a singer singing, a writer writing, an actor acting. We don’t tell football players they should only play on church leagues, and we don’t tell doctors they should only have Christian patients. So why in the world do we give our young people such a hard time about how they use their talents? The main pop song of the movie is called, “Misunderstood.” It made me want to shout just as much as the main Christian song, “All I’ve Ever Needed.” I love music. Music speaks to me. Music made by the Beatles, Tori Amos, Bon Jovi, Ella Fitzgerald, Amy Grant, The Isaacs, Johnny Cash, Oak Ridge Boys, Chris Tomlin… it all speaks to me.

I admit, the ending of the movie and how all of this was reconciled in Grace’s life and career was a bit safe, but I do appreciate the idea that you don’t have to stop being yourself where you start serving God. The two co-exist. And that is a message worth repeating:

“Sometimes, chasing your dreams leads you right to where you belong.”

That is a mainstream message of faith!

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