For AJ Michalka, who plays the title character, Grace Trey, the real-life similarities come from the experiences she and her sister, Aly, have had as they’ve transitioned their careers from pre-teen stars in the Disney stable to young adults now recording as 78Violet.
“I think what Grace is going through here is her turning point – and as Aly & AJ my sister and I had a turning point, too,” Michalka says. “We’ve gotten older, and we’re making our music match. So I can identify with that part of Grace. I think every girl can identify with the idea of wanting to be your own person but wanting to please the people around you at the same time. ”
Of course, Grace’s journey is not purely autobiographical for Michalka. One of the key issues Grace must face in the film is whether the Christian faith she was raised in will continue to be the guiding force in her life, even as she chases success in Hollywood. There’s never been a doubt on that score for Michalka.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found the only way to keep my priorities right is to get more into God’s Word,” she says. “You’ve got to be constantly upping the ‘God food’ in your life.”
Russ Rice, one of the film’s producers, has a little more firsthand experience with the kind of struggles Grace has with her faith. The idea for GRACE UNPLUGGED came, in part, from Rice’s estrangement from one of his children after she decided not to embrace the faith she was raised on into adulthood.
“My daughter ran away six or seven years ago. She doesn’t want to talk to us,” Rice says. “She is living apart from her faith, and my prayer is that somehow, somewhere, she might see this movie, receive a jolt and come back to Christ.”
Imbuing GRACE UNPLUGGED with such a jolt was the responsibility of Rice’s longtime friend, Brad J. Silverman, who wrote and directed the movie. Silverman says as he watched Rice and his family grapple with the crisis of their daughter’s running away he was struck by their “tremendous sincerity of heart.”
“In that sincere state of heart I saw the trial Russ and his wife were going through,” Silverman remembers. “This is a big issue in churches today – kids growing up and struggling with making their faith their own. That’s the journey Grace goes on.”
Of critical importance to all concerned was that Grace’s journey not be trite or hackneyed – that the issues she is shown struggling with aren’t presented in either a glib or heavy-handed way. She goes through a crisis of faith and conflict with her parents, yes, but she is not depicted as winding up “down and out” the moment she sets foot in Los Angeles after leaving her Alabama home and church where she sings in the worship band led by her Dad.
“I didn’t want to make a movie about ‘Alabama Christian music good,’ ‘Hollywood pop music bad,’ ” Silverman stresses. “This is a coming-of-age story of a girl who has to wrestle with her heart, not a story on the evils of Hollywood.”
That distinction was important to Michalka, who described GRACE UNPLUGGED as “a feel-good movie you can go see without being preached at.”
“This girl has a dream, and she goes about it in a certain way. And, in the end, she learns what she gets wrong.”
Film veteran Kevin Pollak, who co-stars as Frank “Mossy” Mostin,” the music agent who guides Grace’s career after she leaves home, also drew on some personal experience in bringing his character to life. Mossy, he notes, is based on a few of the people who have guided him over his 25-year career as an actor and comedian.
“I’ve had a few of these people in my life,” he says, “and it’s hard to figure out which ones to trust and which ones not to. Ultimately you get burned a couple of times and you learn. You always learn more from failure than from success.”
One thing that was not hard for Pollak to figure out was whether he should sign on to GRACE UNPLUGGED. He was drawn by the film’s refusal to traffic in cheap clichés by making Mossy a stereotypically seedy, and untrustworthy, agent.
“It would be typical, if not expected, for Mossy to be a villain,” Pollak says. “But by making him a good guy who sees talent in Grace and not a devil, it makes her character smarter and her journey more profound. And that makes a greater emotional connection to the story.”
Key to the film’s power, he adds, is how “it depicts how Grace learns not only how to live the dreams her talent allows her pursue, but how she ultimately does it in a way that leads to reconciliation with her father, her God, and her family. It is wildly moving.”
The biggest key, though, to giving Grace’s journey meaning is how her conflict with her dad plays out. James Denton, who stars as one-hit-wonder-turned-worship-leader Johnny Trey, called it “tricky” to get the relationship just right. (Denton’s based-on-a-true-story connection to the film: One of his first jobs out of college was in his Baptist church’s praise band.)
“We couldn’t afford for the audience to take sides,” he says. “We wanted people to pull for Johnny a little, and to pull for Grace a little. She had to be just bratty enough for you to see why Johnny’s rules would force her out of the house, and Johnny has to overreact to things just enough to keep Grace likable.”
As Michalka simply puts it: “These are two people who love each other but don’t always understand each other. They just can’t seem to communicate.”
The Johnny-Grace dynamic, and how it is resolved, is at the heart of what the filmmakers hoped to communicate to audiences.
“The stories of Dad and Grace go hand-in-hand,” Silverman notes. “The theme for Dad is, sometimes the best we can do for our kids is to let go and let God take care of them.”
As for the kids, producer Rice says he hopes the movie leads them to “examine themselves and their faith.”
“Do they own their faith? Do they rent their faith? Or do they borrow it from their parents? Those are the questions Grace has to answer, and I hope the audience answers them, too.”
In the end, then, the ultimate “true story” the cast and crew of GRACE UNPLUGGED is most concerned with isn’t about them – it’s about those who see the movie.
For Michalka, what the movie spotlights is the importance of family and faith.
“Family matters. That’s what Grace figures out,” she says. “Family are the only people who will tell you when you’re getting off the tracks a little. Surround yourself with people who love the Lord, love themselves and love you, and you can’t really fail.”
Silverman hopes the impact on families goes beyond what they see on screen.
“I’m hoping we prompt a lot of dialogue between families, that this movie is a conversation starter,” Silverman says. “At the end of the day, I don’t miss the fact that this is entertainment – and I think we’ve made a very entertaining movie. But when the movie is over, and the audience reflects on what they’ve seen, I want Christians to say, ‘Wow. I love God.’ ”
Watch the making of GRACE UNPLUGGED, Clip 1 below: