Although doggedly held back from reviewers before opening, the Christian-oriented musical drama "Grace Unplugged" proves a far more involving, accessible and enjoyable movie than its peek-a-boo marketing strategy suggested.
The key to its success: a smartly measured script by director Brad J. Silverman that feels like it was created on an actual screenwriting instrument and not, as can be the case with faith-based films, with a sledgehammer and bunch of stone tablets.
The gentle, largely convincing story finds 18-year-old Grace Trey (an engaging AJ Michalka) leaving her Birmingham, Ala., hometown for Los Angeles after her father Johnny Trey (James Denton), a onetime rocker/bad boy turned music pastor, brings down the hammer on her musical aspirations and rebellious attitude. A chance introduction to Johnny's old manager Frank "Mossy" Mostin (Kevin Pollak), a secretly recorded cover of her dad's wondrous one-hit "Misunderstood" and interest from a big record label have all helped pave the way for Grace's swing at pop music stardom, despite her dad's anger, disappointment and, of course, fear over her departure. (Grace's mother, well-played by Shawnee Smith, is more quietly supportive.)
Once in L.A., Grace carefully navigates the star-maker machinery while becoming a singing sensation, meets an idol or two and stays on the straight and narrow, despite indulging in a few problematic white lies (in general, honesty is not her strong suit). Wisely, Silverman keeps the pitchforked devils -- and Grace's susceptibility -- in check, thereby avoiding many of the babe-in-the-woods cliches that could have quickly sunk the film.
The filmmaker also shrewdly tempers Grace's pious dad; he's a flesh and blood guy who grows in believable, realistic ways. Denton ("Desperate Housewives"), quite moving here, inhabits Johnny with solidness and, well, grace.
Ultimately, the movie's you-can-have-it-all resolution, foreshadowed in a nice speech by a devout record-company intern (Michael Welch) who befriends Grace, is not only uplifting but well-earned. And, though the film would have benefited from fewer montages, some judicious trimming (Grace's adventures in music land go on a bit) and a zippier shooting style, it should satisfy its intended audience and maybe even bring a few new viewers into the flock.
"Grace Unplugged." MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and brief teen drinking.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Playing: In general release.