Producers: Joshua Walsh, Luke Smallbone, Justin Tolley and Joel Smallbone   Directors: Joel Smallbone and Richard L. Ramsey   Screenplay: Joel Smallbone and Richard L. Ramsey   Cast:  Joel Smallbone, Daisy Betts, Kirrilee Berger, Jonathan Jackson, Lucas Black, Candace Cameron Bure, Terry O’Quinn, Paul Luke Bonenfant, Diesel La Torraca, JJ Pantano, Tenz McCall, Angus K. Caldwell, Roslyn Gentle and Rachel Hendrix   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade: C

The ascent of an Australian-American family to an exalted position in the Christian music scene is treated as a parable of providence in this faith-based movie made by two of the family members who now headline a successful Christian pop band.  Viewed on the most basic terms, “Unsung Hero” can be seen as a simple tale of how steadfast trust in God can overcome all obstacles and result in happiness (not to mention prosperity).  If one looks at the details of the story more closely, however, its messages are a bit more complicated.

The movie is co-written and co-directed (with Richard L. Ramsey) by Joel Smallbone, who, with his brother Luke (a producer here), make up For King & Country, a Christian pop duo that’s enjoyed fame (and won four Grammys) over the last decade.  Joel also stars as his own father David, who’s responsible for bringing the family—wife Helen (Daisy Betts) and their six children, Rebecca (Kirrilee Berger), Daniel (Paul Luke Bonenfant), Ben (Tenz McCall), Joel (Diesel La Torraca), Luke (JJ Pantano) and Josh (Angus K. Caldwell), with a seventh on the way—to the United States in 1991.  Though David’s father (Terry O’Quinn) is sad to see them leave Australia, he wishes them Godspeed. 

The relocation is the result of the financial collapse of David’s music promotion business in their native Sydney.  Though he’d had a triumph bringing in the American Christian metal band Stryper, his bet on an Amy Grant (Rachel Hendrix) concert fails miserably (because of a recession, we’re told), and the family’s one-thriving financial situation is suddenlyspontaneously dire.  In desperation he decides to move the family to Tennessee, hoping to restart his career there.  But when his plans fall through, the family is reduced to doing menial jobs—like housecleaning and lawn work—just to survive.  They all pitch in enthusiastically, and fortunately they find support from fellow churchgoers Jed and Kay Albright (Lucas Black and Candace Cameron Bure), who, among other things, give them a van, even though David is without insurance or even a license.

As shown here, it’s Helen who, as the closing captions suggests, was the glue that held the family together when the going got rough, the unsung hero of the title, from the initial arrival in America, when she won over customs agents who were doubtful about admitting the Smallbones, to a later point when David had largely given up and taken to bed and the family’s resources dwindled.  It was Helen’s unwavering perseverance that kept the family intact through the darkest times.

David, meanwhile, is portrayed as a man who essentially had to learn to set aside his pride and leave it to providence to provide.  Disconsolate over his failure as a promoter in Australia, and by his inability to get a foothold in Tennessee (the family settled in Franklin, to the southwest of Nashville), he allows pessimism to overcome his hope, even rebelling against the help offered by his evangelical friends—like a washer and drier as a Christmas gift.  And when Helen goes into the hospital to deliver their seventh child Libby, David erupts at Jed for paying the bill without asking him; he complains especially because his friend had shelled out the full $6,000, rather than the $3,000 he had negotiated with the hospital to pay in installments.

In fact, Jed proves important in the film’s final triumphant act—the signing of the oldest Smallbone child, Rebecca, to a record contract with ForeFront Records, owned by Christian music star Eddie DeGarmo (Jonathan Jackson), for whom the family worked as housekeepers.  Though Joel and Luke are behind the making of “Unsung Hero,” their emergence as a band is only mentioned in a postscript; it’s their older sister, while agreeing to DeGarmo’s suggestion that she change her surname (though she insists that it be to St. James rather than St. John, in order to honor her recently-deceased granddad), who becomes the first family star.  It’s after Jed emphasizes her potential that David shepherds her to unsuccessful meetings with executives from various labels, culminating in an audition for DeGarmo (complete with excerpts from home movies that have been regularly shot by family videographer Ben) that inaugurates her Grammy-winning career in 1994.

“Unsung Hero” is a heartfelt tribute by Joel and Luke to their parents, intended to inspire Christian believers about the power of faith, and the cast—including Joel, Betts and the youngsters—give dedicated performances.  So does Black, probably the most recognizable face on screen for most people, who undoubtedly accepted the part because the project aligned with the Christian values that, as he’s publicly asserted, animated his decision to leave his regular role on “N.C.I.S. New Orleans.”  But the addition of a beard doesn’t appreciably elevate his limited acting range.  Technical credits are better than average for this sort of fare, with Katherine Tucker’s production design and Johnny Derango’s cinematography making use of the Tennessee and Kentucky locations to decent effect.  Editor Parker Adams certainly doesn’t push too hard, making for pacing that often feels dilatory. Obviously music plays a big part in the story, not just in concert scenes and Rebecca’s numbers toward the end but throughout: the Smallbones are likely to burst into song at any moment, and even when they don’t Brent McCorkle’s score is there to italicize every hug and tear—of which there are many. 

This is not a subtle movie, operating with a heavy emotional and religious hand, but it’s an earnest one, and will probably find an enthusiastic audience among evangelical churchgoers.  Others should probably not populate the pews.