Let’s be honest: “Christian” movies don’t enjoy a very good reputation, for good reason.

Cheesy acting, lame scripts, poor production values, formulaic plots and scenes – there’s a lot not to like.

Yet when an industry insider told me the upcoming “Grace Unplugged” – due to be released in theaters Oct. 4 – could be “one of the best, if not the best, Christian faith and values movie so far,” I was intrigued. Could it really live up to such high praise?

Given a special preview copy of the film, I decided to find out.

“Grace Unplugged” is a father-daughter drama about reconciliation, forgiveness and the allure of the entertainment industry. It follows a talented young singer who feels suffocated by her Christian father but learns leaving God behind when she leaves home comes with even more troubling problems. It’s both a tear-jerker and an inspiration.

But let’s continue to be honest: “Christian movie” or not, I can’t be a fair critic if I don’t examine it under the same level of critique I extend the other major releases seen in theaters each week.

So there are a few lingering problems with “Grace Unplugged,” most significantly a plotline that is hopelessly predictable. And it is clearly a Christian movie for a Christian audience, as most secular audiences won’t be able to relate to its churchy setting.

“Grace Unplugged,” now on DVD.

But that said, the industry insider I talked to was right: “Grace Unplugged” is a major step forward in Christian filmmaking.

For starters, it brings real actors with mainstream experience to the roles (including actors from “The Pretender” and “Desperate Housewives,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “Twilight,” “Secretariat” and “Super 8,” among others), rather than relying on church members to shoulder drama they can’t carry. The stilted, staged prayers and sermons that too many Christianese movies rely upon are mercifully replaced with more honest dialogue and quiet moments.

And beyond just what it doesn’t do wrong, “Grace Unplugged” does something very, very right.

The music in this film is outstanding. After the first, intentionally plastic praise chorus, “Grace Unplugged” introduces audiences to two completely new songs and one reinvented old one through the amazingly charismatic and talented actress/singer A.J. Michalka.

The young Michalka has the chops to carry the film, not only as an actress, but most especially when she takes to the stage to sing. I found myself afterward wanting to go back and relive the concerts, memorize the lyrics and re-watch the music videos in the movie. Frankly, I may purchase a few of Michalka’s albums as a singer; she has a fresh and moving voice.

Furthermore, the message of the film, its resolution and (albeit predictable) reconciliation, its parallels to the Prodigal Son story and its exploration of Christians inside the world of entertainment all work together to make “Grace Unplugged” a movie worth praising.

I’m not going to say “Grace Unplugged” is quite up to the level of its secular competition. It still too much like a sermon and still asks audiences to forgive too much.

But it is a marked improvement in the Christian film industry. And I will make this earnest appeal: The only way Christian audiences can hope to see more movies like this, and indeed to see the industry improve its quality, is to go see these films in the theater. I’ve talked with industry insiders and well-known Christian actors like John Schneider, and they’ve made it clear that by the time a film hits DVD, it’s too late. The money follows the box office and the box office alone, and if more inspiring movies like “Grace Unplugged” are going to be made, their impact has to be seen at the box office.

So look for “Grace Unplugged” when it comes out Oct. 4, and gather together your families, your churches and your youth groups to see it in theaters. At the very least, you’ll walk out with a good, cleansing sniffle, humming a few tunes and helping to make Christian films a more and more viable alternative to the typical, Hollywood fare.

See the trailer below:

Content advisory:

As “Grace Unplugged” has not yet been released in theaters, the final, edited content of the film cannot be assured by this reviewer. But the preview I saw contained neither obscenity nor violence. There were some sexual references and some alluring outfits and dancing in music videos. The film is loaded with Christian references, mostly positively portrayed.

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