If there’s a trend in religion and the church that preoccupies a great many people, it’s that millennials—those between the ages of 18 and 29—are leaving the church in uncomfortably high numbers. Recent surveys peg the percentage of young adult leavers at just over forty. In real numbers, that means 8 million twenty-somethings have given up on church and, in some cases, Christianity.
You could take months to study these surveys and read a bunch of books that talk about this recent phenomenon, or you could spend 90 minutes watching Grace Unplugged, the inspirational new film centered on an 18-year-old millennial who leaves the church, her family and her faith in search of a dream she hopes will bring her happiness and meaning.
Grace Unplugged tells a familiar story that resonates universally. In fact, it’s a three-act storyline that follows the classic hero’s journey: departure, initiation and return. It’s the story of the prodigal son (or in this case, the prodigal daughter), and we can all relate. Consequently, the plot is more than a little predictable with characters that border on stereotypes, but the effect is surprisingly strong, thanks to the musical talents of AJ Michalka in the lead role of Grace Trey.
Grace is the daughter of Johnny Trey (James Denton of Desperate Housewives fame), a former rock star turned church worship leader whose one hit, “Misunderstood,” became a Billboard chart topper long before his wife Michelle (Shawnee Smith) and daughter Grace came into his life.
The film opens with the formerly famous father and grown-up daughter leading worship in their Bible-belt church. Dad plays it straight, but Grace wanders off script and rocks out more than she should—at least in her father’s eyes.
Grace and dad’s relationship is punctuated by more than musical disagreement. She’s stubborn and rebellious and has a habit of infuriating and disappointing Johnny. Grace spends time in her room dreaming of musical fame by watching videos of her Katy Perry-like hero, Renae Taylor.
The movie’s first act ends with the appearance of Frank “mossy” Mostin, played to oily perfection by Kevin Pollak. Mossy is Johnny’s former manager who shows up after a 15-year absence to tell Johnny that his hit song was covered by the winner of the Australian American Idol competition, causing it to go “viral.” Mossy brings Johnny an offer to record and tour again, but Johnny turns him down, saying, “That’s not me anymore.”
Deeply disappointed that her dad doesn’t seize the opportunity, Grace secretly records her own version of “Misunderstood” (isn’t Garage Band wonderful?) and sends it to Mossy, who is so impressed that he immediately sends Grace a plane ticket to Los Angeles so he can develop her career. Like a thief in the night, Grace—soon to be christened Gracie by the unscrupulous Mossy and his team of smarmy image makers—sneaks out of the house, leaving her parents and best friend behind in order to seek her own fame and fortune.
The second act is so predictable it hurts—Gracie gets swallowed up by the music industry and soon realizes that all they care about is her voice and her body—but there is redemption in Grace’s performance of “Misunderstood” at a Sunset Blvd. club. AJ Machalka truly has talent, and it saves the film from becoming too sappy.
In the third act Grace is brought to her senses by Quentin, a fellow millennial and a Christian who happens to be an intern at Grace’s record label. Quentin is like Jiminy Cricket, whispering sense into Grace’s ear and doing all he can to help her return to the faith she left behind. At one point he confronts her with what is surely the most straight-forward line of faith dialogue you’ll ever encounter on the big screen: “Why do you want any of this?,” he asks her. “Is Jesus Christ really who you’re living for? I think you’re fighting God. Stop running from God and make things right with your dad. Do that and I’m pretty sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
I won’t spoil the rest of Grace Unplugged for you, because I recommend that you see it. Suffice it to say that at the end of the film Grace delivers another compelling performance, only this time real life worship guru Chris Tomlin and her father are involved. Enough said.
As for lessons learned for millennials who leave the church and the parents who are worried about them, the themes of Grace Unplugged are at once realistic and practical. “The search for ultimate meaning is never outdated,” suggests one study on the habits of millennials. Furthermore, concludes another, “Strong families produce lasting faith.” Those statements pretty much sum up the takeaways of this nice little film. With some great music thrown in, you couldn’t ask for much more in a family-friendly faith-based movie.