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Adam R. Holz

Movie Review

“Every adventure has perils and pitfalls,” Helen Smallbone tells her six children and husband, David, as they huddle on the faded carpet of their “modest” new rental home in Nashville, Tennessee.


Adventure is one word to describe what’s happened to the Smallbone family. And a bravely charitable word at that. Others might have looked at the family’s dire surroundings and desperate situation and chosen another, arguably more honest word: nightmare.

Not long before, Helen’s entrepreneurial husband, David, had been on top of the world. The CCM market was booming in early 1990s, and the Australian Christan concert promoter seemingly could do no wrong, promoting hugely popular bands such as Stryper, for instance.

Life was good for David and Helen and their six kiddos, as they enjoyed a lavish home with a pool table in the living room and a pool to swim in out back. And now, David has the opportunity of a lifetime: overseeing and promoting Amy Grant’s forthcoming concert tour down under. Sure, it will take a lot of money. More than a million dollars, actually, to pull it off. But that figure likely pales compared to the windfall David hopes to bring in.

Helen’s not so sure. “It’s just a lot of money,” she tells her husband. “I feel like we’re putting our lives on the line.”

She continues: “And it’s not just the finances. The kids miss you. I miss you.”

“It’s a two-week tour,” David says as he loads up the contract on the fax machine. Two weeks that, David hopes, will change everything for the Smallbones.

And so they do.

When a recession decimates concert attendance, David’s on the hook for a half-million-dollar shortfall.

“Helen, I’m sorry. No one anticipated this economy. We’re going to lose everything.”

David feels he has no choice but to uproot his family and move to the epicenter of the Christian music industry: Nashville.

Nothing—not one single thing—goes as planned. But in the end, the Smallbone family bands together to trust God, to love one another and to cling to hope that maybe, just maybe, there’s an adventure unfolding that’s bigger than they could have dreamed.

Positive Elements

Just about any way you want to slice it, Unsung Hero is about family. It’s the story of a marriage tested by a husband’s best efforts that fail. It’s the story of two parents’ connections with their children. It’s the story of those two people’s relationships with their parents. (David’s father, especially, has a tender, encouraging relationship with his son that’s expressed throughout the film.)

As the story opens, we see that David Smallbone is a gifted man who swings for the fences … and fails.

With each new setback, David retreats just a bit more into sullenness, self-pity and, eventually, crippling depression. And at every turn, Helen steps forward, leaning into her role as wife and mother, steadfastly and ferociously refusing to give up on her husband or on God.

One of the core elements of the story involves the Smallbones’ oldest child, 16-year-old Rebecca, and her budding singing aspirations. She’s clearly got a beautiful voice. In fact, some of the family’s new acquaintances in Nashville, Ned and Kay Albright, encourage David to seek a recording deal for her. (Ned is a successful songwriter and knows talent when he hears it.)

David knows how brutal the industry can be. He wants to protect Rebecca from being objectified or used by companies that really don’t have her best interests at heart. Helen, however, believes deeply in her daughter’s ability, aspiration and sense of calling to encourage others through song. Much of the plot subsequently involves David and Helen working through tremendous conflict and disappointment as they each strive to do right by Rebecca.

The Albrights, for their part, are practically angelic in their generosity toward the Smallbone family. They work hard to meet their needs, to the point that David himself begins to feel shame that he’s not providing for his family as he ought to. That sense of shame and failure—and Helen’s faithfulness to her husband in the middle of it—is another big part of the story. Young Rebecca is eager to learn and grow as a singer, even when her relationship with her struggling dad hits a rocky patch.

Overall, the film is chockful of moments where this large family bumps into big issues that they must work through together, sometimes in very painful ways. But together, they persevere.

A message from Luke Smallbone (who now performs with his brother, Joel, in the Christian band For King & Country) at the beginning of the film tells viewers, “At the end of the day, I think we have a great belief in the family, and I think there’s a lot of power that’s found there.” Accordingly, at the end of the film, we see a very family-focused quote from Mother Teresa: “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

Spiritual Elements

The Smallbone family trusts God together throughout this film.

I won’t spoil it completely here, but there’s one particularly touching way that Helen comes up with to help the kids identify needs and pray for them. We watch as they all learn to do that, and we see how God answers their prayers in incredibly specific ways. Helen characterizes these answers to prayer as miracles, even though David (in a deepening fog of discouragement) struggles to see them as such at times.

One of David’s primary spiritual struggles is pride. He has been successful, and he takes providing for his family very seriously. But as failures mount and difficult circumstances persist, that inherent self-dependence gets whittled away painfully.

We repeatedly hear Rebecca (and some of her brothers) singing the first song she writes, “You Make Everything Beautiful.” The chorus tells us: “You make everything, everything beautiful/You make everything, everything new/You make everything, everything beautiful/In its time, in Your time/It’s beautiful.”

Sexual Content

Helen and David kiss perhaps four or five times throughout the film. They’re shown in bed together several times as well, sometimes talking, sometimes just sitting or lying next to each other, but never connecting in a physically intimate manner.

Early on, one of David’s concert-promotion associates flirts creepily with Helen when he meets her for the first time, kissing her hand.

Violent Content

In a moment of anger and frustration, Helen slaps David across the face. In another similarly emotional moment of shattered hopes, David beats on a phone/fax machine, then throws it to the floor in a rage.

[Spoiler Warning] We hear that one important-but-ancillary character has died.

Crude or Profane Language

There’s no profanity in the film. But as the Smallbones are about to leave for the U.S., James (David’s father) jokes with a wink, “Go give them all the Hel [short for Helen] they can handle.” He calls her “Hel” at least one other time as well. The film also features the band Stryper performing its hit song “To Hell With the Devil,” a lyric that’s repeated several times.

Drug and Alcohol Content


Other Negative Elements

David has a well-intentioned desire to protect Rebecca from the hard realities of the Christian music industry. But in one frustration-filled conversation with Helen and Rebecca, he unloads that perspective harshly and with a raised voice. It’s offensive enough that Helen slaps him across the face and tells him to leave. It’s a tense moment that’s clearly hurtful to Rebecca.

David’s perspective on the Christian music industry isn’t a flattering one. He tells Rebecca (with a painful lack of sensitivity for his teen girl’s feelings), “She needs to hear what I wish to God someone had told me. People in this industry, they’re not your friends. They don’t care about you or what happens to you. They only care about what you can do for them.” We see that observation play out in multiple ways throughout the story.

U.S. Customs agents in Los Angeles don’t come off looking very good either, as their harsh treatment of the Smallbone family is wince-inducing.

We see Helen vomiting in an airplane toilet—morning sickness—as the family flies to America.


Unsung Hero tells a quietly remarkable story. Here’s what I mean.

In some ways, the saga of this Australian family’s sojourn in the United States, strangers in a strange land, is an archetypal Christian movie, with a pure Hollywood ending to boot: The underdogs win, persevering through a seemingly unending series of unfortunate, Job-like events that might’ve capsized the faith of other families. In the end, Rebecca St. James launches her triumphant career. Redemption, hope and beauty win the day, the lyrics of Rebecca’s oft-sung first song still echoing in our hearts as she steps onto the stage of the Creation ’93 music festival: “You make everything, everything, everything beautiful.”

And so He does.

But Unsung Hero is no airbrushed hagiography of the Smallbone family. Their path to beauty has been fraught with jagged, startling, even ugly brokenness. The story stares straight into the emotional abyss that David Smallbone plunges into when his best efforts implode cataclysmically. And it’s a black hole—one that anyone who has ever wrestled with depression or a sense of irredeemable failure will likely relate to.

“What kind of man am I?” David whispers in despair after many days—perhaps weeks—of depressive paralysis and inability even to get out of bed. “What kind of husband or father? Or son?” Eventually, like a kind of prodigal son, he’s prodded awake and comes to his senses.

The one holding the prod is, of course, his longsuffering wife, Helen.

“Our kids have come all this way,” she pleads. “They gave up everything, and they’re still happy. Because they believe in us. And they believe in you. They just believe. It’s time for you to believe, too. Please.”

But Unsung Hero poignantly depicts Helen’s own moments of despair, too. We see her scream in desperation into a pillow, where no one but God can hear. We see the stark terror on her face when she’s interrogated by a cruel U.S. customs officer who acts like a Cold War Russian lackey at an Iron Curtain checkpoint. Over and over and over again, she chooses hope and courage for the sake of her seven children, often when her well-meaning but despair-deflated husband simply cannot do so.

As the family hovers over the precipice of disaster yet again in one scene, Helen rounds up the children and drives to a park with a playground pirate ship. She leads the imaginary charge against the pretend—and yet, not so pretend—buccaneers the family metaphorically faces.

“Before we attack,” she says, “there’s one thing left to do.”

“What is it?” one of the children asks expectantly.

“We burn the ships—all of them.”

“Even ours?” a small voice says, perhaps intuiting that there’s something more than a playground game of imagination at stake. “How do we get back?”

“We don’t,” Helen replies bluntly. “It’s going to be dangerous. And scary. And it’s going to be hard. So hard that you want to go back. But if you know that you can go back, you will. And giving up, giving in, it’s not an option. We’ve got to fight our way forward! We have to win.”

And so, on the back of mom’s unrelenting courage in the face of so much peril, they do.

The unsung hero here is, of course, Helen Smallbone. The movie is a tribute to her faith and courage, the glue—the atomic connectivity—that binds the Smallbone family together. It’s no wonder that when Helen asks Rebecca what her dreams are, the teen replies, “My dream is to be like you. It always has been. You’re my hero, Mom.”

Helen’s heroism, in big ways and small, is the evident throughout the story. David’s own heroism emerges late in the story, as his wife’s love and persistence snap him out of his toxic, self-focused stew of shame, anger, despair and self-pity. “I’ve acted like a fool,” he tells his family. “Can you forgive me?”

Unsung Hero isn’t gritty in the sense that its content pushes the boundaries. It doesn’t. But it is gritty in the unvarnished way it depicts a proud-but-broken man’s failure and his struggle to emerge with his faith and relationships intact on the other side. David’s not particularly likeable for much of this film, but as a sometimes-struggling dad myself, I found that warts-and-all characterization remarkably refreshing.

Unsung Hero ultimately reminds us of a foundational spiritual principle that’s so easy to lose track of: We need each other to walk with and trust God. We can’t go it alone—even if we’re tempted by good intentions and stubborn personality to try. And nowhere is that truth more important or evident than in our families.

To hear more about the story behind this movie, be sure to check out Adam Holz’s interviews with Rebecca St. James as well as Joel and Luke Smallbone on The Plugged In Show podcast

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Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.