Follow your dreams, teens are told over and over again. But what happens when your dreams don't line up with God's heart? When reaching for the stars means burying your faith?
The very gifts God gives us can sometimes pull us away from Him.
It happened to Johnny Trey—a singer/songwriter who parlayed a talent for music into the outrageously popular "Misunderstood." That hit record might've been the best and worst thing to ever happen to the guy: In the wake of his success, Johnny sank into a world of self-absorption and substance abuse. Only when he found God and left the high-stress world of stardom did he find peace—as a music pastor for a church in Birmingham, Ala.
For several years, things were great. He got married and had a beautiful little girl named Grace—a blonde dynamo with a love for both God and music. Yep, everything seemed perfect.
Or so it seemed … until Grace turned 18.
Oh, Grace still loves music. Maybe too much. She goes off-script during services and freelances through worship songs like a Whitney Houston wannabe.
"I have my own style!" She hollers at her displeased father after church. "Have you not noticed that?"
"It's worship, Grace!" Johnny thunders back. "We're there to worship!"
Her attitude grows worse with each passing day, it seems. She's skipping youth group to go to the movies. She's lying and getting lazy. She's fighting with her folks constantly. For Johnny, it would seem that his perfect little girl has become a perfect little pain in the rear.
Then, one Sunday between squabbles, Johnny's old manager Frank Mostin walks through the church door with some crazy news. "Misunderstood," Johnny's one and only hit, is getting airplay again. Old concert footage of Johnny has gone viral on YouTube. Suddenly, the old man is a hot property again. And Mostin—always "Mossy" to Johnny—says it's time to get back on the road.
Thanks, but no thanks, Johnny says. He's seen enough of that road for a lifetime. He's fine with his church and his family in Birmingham.
But Grace overhears the conversation and, after a dejected Mossy leaves, she records her own version of "Misunderstood" and ships it off to the music biz guy.
He listens. He likes. And he invites Grace to come to Los Angeles.
Grace doesn't have to be asked twice. She packs up some clothes and the guitar her father gave her, taking off for that City of Angels, of Dreams, of Stars. She's more than ready to make good on her own bountiful gifts.
The only gift she leaves behind for her parents is a terse note on her bed—telling them not to follow her.
Neither Grace nor her father are exactly perfect here, and that's the point: Both make some very human mistakes and must learn how to correct them. Grace grows from a rebellious, self-absorbed diva into a humbler, more gracious person. But it's not easy. The pathway to humility rarely is. She takes some lumps and learns some lessons, and she comes out of the ordeal healthier and happier.
Even in the midst of her rebellion, Grace still stays true to some good old-fashioned values: She doesn't take to the idea of exploiting her sexuality, for example, whether during photo shoots or while on dates. And Grace's dad learns some lessons too. While he's not the obvious pill Grace is, Johnny is guilty of treating his little girl like a little girl for too long. He won't listen to Grace's ideas for worship performances, ignoring her obviously titanic talent. And he comes to see his shortcomings as he works his way back into her good … graces. That's not to excuse Grace's actions, of course. She was wrong, no doubt about it. But Johnny owns up to his own role in his family's discord. "I think somewhere deep down, I just never wanted you to grow up," he admits.
"Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right," Paul writes in Ephesians. "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." If Grace Unplugged has a guiding verse, this is most certainly it.
But Grace Unplugged is also very much a cautionary coming-of-age story—an examination of how sometimes what we most want undermines what we most need. Grace discovers that by following her own heart she arrives in a place that's determined to squash that strong yet sensitive organ. It's only by following God's heart that she finds true happiness and peace and fulfillment.
Along the way, Grace lands a much-needed friend in Quentin, a Christian intern for her record label who provides for her a tenuous thread back to God and a more grounded reality. He invites her over for dinner with his family, gives her Christian books to read and, most importantly, shows that he's always there for her—her rock in a stormy time.
What a difference faith can make in people's lives. That's core to Grace Unplugged. Johnny Trey believes his faith in Jesus literally saved him from a degenerative lifestyle. And Quentin, too, admits that he was "kind of a punk" before he became a Christian.
Grace is pulled in another direction by her big-time music industry handlers, who treat Christianity as little more than a flimsy anachronism. Most movers and shakers in L.A. know Johnny's story and accept it with a sort of "whatever works for you" vibe. But it has no relevance to their lives or business.
So the whole time Grace is out there, it seems she's struggling with what to do with this pesky religion of hers: embrace it (as she knows she should) or ignore it (for the good of her career). When she's asked about her father and his faith during interviews, she begins to distance herself from it. She appreciates Quentin's prayers, but when it appears they've gone unanswered, she seems to almost chastise him for his faith.
But God is not mocked. Nor is Quentin deterred. He suggests to Grace that perhaps she's not just running away from her father, but running from God, too.
We hear lots of worship songs, and people talk lovingly about God, His plans for us and His care for us. Grace holds hands and prays with Quentin's family.
"Your body is the biggest asset you have," Grace is told by a pop star she idolizes. "Your currency. Sometimes you have to spend it." And Grace does indeed feel the pressure to spend. "You're a beautiful girl," Mossy tells her. "We just want to make the most of it, that's all." Her image consultant says she should at first be "Daddy's little girl with an edge" (with the suggestion that as time goes on, her image may grow more salacious).
But Grace never does anything that degrades her modesty. When Mossy lines up a well-respected photographer to do her album cover, Grace expresses concerns that most of his former subjects wore barely anything for the shoots—and the album cover is never shot. For a time, Grace dates a hot-to-trot television star, but she turns down his offer to come back to his place.
The subject of sex briefly comes up when Johnny gives Grace a promise ring, which she grumpily rejects on the grounds that she doesn't need a ring to remind her of what she already knows.
Crude or Profane Language
Four or five uses of "gosh."
Drug and Alcohol Content
The 18-year-old Grace is never carded once she arrives in Los Angeles. She begins to drink—champagne at first, in celebration of her first record deal. Later she starts ordering the signature beverage of her image consultant, and we see her get drunk while out on a date.
It's just the sort of behavior Johnny was worried about. He frittered away his own career in a haze of drugs (Grace calls him out for being "wasted" back in the day), and he admits that, with all he did back then, he's lucky to be alive. "The drugs alone should've killed me," he says. "Glad that part of my life is over."
Grace plays in a nightclub, and we see alcohol at bars and parties.
Grace Unplugged can feel, at times, like The Miley Cyrus Story: What Could've Been. We have a one-hit wonder who finds faith and raises a talented daughter … then that talented daughter turns 18 and goes a little crazy.
Here's where the stories diverge (at least for now): The daughter realizes the error of her ways, comes back to her morals, her senses and her daddy, and everyone lives happily ever after.
But there's more to this moving story of rebellion, regret and reconciliation.
I think most fathers (and mothers) eventually grow familiar with the complicated two-step we see here—the desire to protect your kids clashing with the need to let them go. And I think most teens can sympathize with Grace and her dreams. Indeed, we all must eventually either accept or reject our parents' teaching, make our faith our own (or not) and go into the world on our own, and in our own way.
The pressure can be immense to do this sort of thing gracefully. But it ain't easy. And in many families, it can make for a whole lot of stress and anger and tears.
So in the midst of it all, it can be easy to forget a simple but profound truth: God is in control.
Johnny doesn't feel that sense of peace. He can't control his daughter. He can't control his own reactions at times. And I get that: As a parent, you want to make your kids understand certain things. You want to save them from bad decisions—perhaps the very decisions you made yourself once. So it's good for me to be reminded that that's not always possible. As Johnny's pastor and friend tells him, "God may not be using you in Grace's life right now. And He may never. But He is in control."