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SCHMALTZ FREE: AJ Michalka as Grace.
JP Yim/Roadside Attractions
SCHMALTZ FREE: AJ Michalka as Grace.

A focus on quality

Movies | Grace Unplugged raises the bar for Christian moviemaking

Issue: "Bright or rotten idea?," Oct. 5, 2013

“High quality” is not a phrase commonly associated with Christian movies and for good reason. Many Christian filmmakers in recent years have relied on wholesome messages rather than overall excellence, creating a plethora of schmaltzy movies that buckle under the weight of artistic scrutiny. 

That may be changing thanks to Christian director Brad Silverman. With experience in the entertainment industry as a jazz drummer, stand-up comedian, actor, and now director, Silverman knows firsthand what it takes to produce top-notch entertainment, skills he’s put to use in writing and directing Grace Unplugged, an inspirational film hitting theaters Oct. 4.

Silverman, backed by Coram Deo Studios, didn’t have a large budget to work with on Grace Unplugged—it was 25 percent less than the budget for the 2011 Alex Kendrick film Courageous—so he had to home in on a few things and do them well. By writing a tight, focused script, assembling a strong cast of accomplished and talented actors, and selecting good accompanying music, Silverman did just that.

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“I didn’t want a lack of quality to get in the way of people’s enjoyment of the film,” he said of his story about a Christian musician who defies her father’s wishes to make a name for herself in the pop music industry (see review below).

Silverman based the story on the experience of friend and producer Russ Rice, whose eldest daughter ran away from home several years ago, abandoned her faith, and broke off communication with her parents and siblings. Silverman and his wife Hayley saw the Rice family’s suffering first hand. That insight informs the film, manifesting itself in the realistic dialogue and the emotional tension between father and daughter.

But what really sets Silverman’s work apart is his refusal to rely on clichés. Silverman said when the movie’s trajectory became clear, he wrote on a whiteboard the potential “deathblows” for the film—stereotyping music industry professionals as “bad” and Southern Christians as “good” or placing all the blame for the father-daughter schism on one person. “Once that was out of the way,” he said, “I just tried to make a movie that I wanted to watch.” 

The first step in doing so was selecting actors who could take the script and create three-dimensional, believable characters. “If you take the same script and put it in the hands of someone less talented and nuanced it comes off as cheesy,” Silverman said. So instead of relying on amateurs, he followed the advice he once heard at a seminar from director Richard Donner—“Surround yourself with really talented people and they’ll make you look good”—and recruited experienced and gifted individuals.

Silverman also needed the right music. He listened to hundreds of songs to find the ones that added the final dimension to the film.

Interestingly, Silverman discovered “Misunderstood”—the song Grace uses as a springboard to success—in a secular publishing company’s back catalog; a man who felt condemned by his church for writing non-Christian music wrote it. Silverman contacted him so he could adapt the song to better fit the film’s themes. When AJ Michalka performs the song in the movie, the artistic storytelling comes full circle.

Although the movie isn’t perfect and has low-budget moments at times, Silverman’s overall focus on quality and excellence raises the bar for Christian moviemakers. “I hope this is a step in the right direction,” Silverman said. “I pray this opens doors for more people to make films that don’t compromise their faith … and express the gifts God has given them creatively.”

Prodigal tale

JP Yim/Roadside Attractions

Grace Unplugged (rated PG) tells the story of a talented young musician named Grace Trey (AJ Michalka) who inherited her musical skills from her father (James Denton), a former ’80s-rock-star-turned-Alabama-music-pastor. Grace loves her parents but chafes under her father’s strict rules about “proper” and “improper” ways to play worship music.

When Grace’s dad refuses a request from his old manager, Frank “Mossy” Mostin (Kevin Pollack), to go on tour, Grace decides it’s time to step out on her own and sends an audition tape to Mossy. He’s blown away and flies her to Hollywood to ink a deal with a record company. Angry with her father and hungry to find her own way, Grace leaves without a word to her parents.

Mossy helps her get established in Hollywood and looks out for her as she begins her career in pop music. Meanwhile, Grace is faced with a host of difficult decisions and must decide whether to follow a life of faith or pursue fame at all costs. 

While Silverman’s story is a standard prodigal tale and has some trite moments, overall it avoids the obvious stereotypes, allowing life’s real tensions to come into play.

These tensions are brought to life by a talented cast of actors, led by musician and professing Christian AJ Michalka (of the sister-band 78Violet) in the title role. Her skills are augmented by the talents of veteran actor James Denton, also a professing Christian, who gained fame for his long-time role as Mike Delfino on Desperate Housewives. Ultimately though, it’s Kevin Pollak (A Few Good Men and The Wedding Planner) whose nuanced performance as the manager Mossy brings it all together, adding just the right touch of unaffected sincerity to the film. —S.P.

Stephanie Perrault
Stephanie Perrault

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