Unsung Hero

There’s now a whole subgenre of faith-based films centered around the lives of famous Christian musicians. I Can Only Imagine is about MercyMe’s Bart Millard, I Still Believe tells the story of Jeremy Camp, and now there’s Unsung Hero, which details how an Australian family gave birth to solo artist Rebecca St. James and Contemporary Christian band For King + Country. The hero of the title is the family matriarch, Helen Smallbone, played by Daisy Betts. Without her holding the clan together, musical success likely would not have been possible for her children.

Helen’s husband David (For King + Country’s Joel Smallbone, portraying his own father) is a leading concert promoter in Australia. When the economy crashes just as he’s invested heavily in an Amy Grant tour, he loses everything, becoming unhirable. America could offer a fresh start, so David convinces Helen to pack up the family and move to Nashville. Multiple financial hardships continue, with the Smallbones getting by solely because of the graciousness of church friends like Jed and Kay Albright (Lucas Black and Candace Cameron Bure). A chance encounter with noted singer Eddie Degarmo (Jonathan Jackson) lights a fire under David and Helen’s teen daughter Rebecca (Kirrilee Berger). She wants to pursue singing to help earn much-needed money.

There’s a whole lot more to the story than that. Unsung Hero dives into the long, torturous road the Smallbones take to dig themselves out of the hole. The old cliché “you wouldn’t believe it if it was a work of fiction” absolutely applies. Watching all the hardships the family endures is both gut-wrenching and inspiring -- gut-wrenching because they hit rock bottom and stay there for a long time, inspiring because their faith in God helps them to hang on even in the darkest of moments. The movie contains a powerful message about not giving up in the face of severe adversity.

In addition to his performance, Joel Smallbone co-wrote and co-directed the film. That could have made it a smug, egotistical work. He avoids that by turning Unsung Hero into a love letter to his mom. Over the course of two hours, we see how Helen is the rock within the clan. When her husband and children are scared, despondent, or otherwise dysregulated, she keeps her own emotions in check and maintains the familial unity. In that sense, the character stands in for the people in our own families who show similar selflessness. This may technically be about famous folks, but there’s a universality to the message that will allow it to resonate with diverse audiences. Betts is wonderful, giving an understated turn that demonstrates the strength of Helen’s faith more than any overwritten monologue could.

Another compelling area of the movie is its glimpse inside the Contemporary Christian music business. As Rebecca attempts entry, various issues crop up, including what image she should present. (That’s why she goes from Rebecca Smallbone to Rebecca St. James.) Also buried in there is a subtle implication that a Christian artist has to pass muster in the religion department. Degarmo, for example, has hit the big time, and when Rebecca auditions for him, part of his decision seems to rest upon the sincerity with which she conveys a faith message. We haven’t seen a nuts-and-bolts picture about the Christian record industry, so glimpses shown here provide insight.

The one really wrong note Unsung Hero hits is failing to develop the other Smallbone children. Yes, there are seven kids, but none aside from Rebecca have much in the way of distinguishable personality. Not even Joel and Luke, who went on to become stars. Giving them a little added dimension would have allowed the themes to pack an optimal punch.

That’s a not-insignificant flaw, yet it’s not enough to dampen what Unsung Hero has to offer. This is a joyful, optimistic, and entertaining film dealing with the bonds of family and the transformative power of faith.

out of four

Unsung Hero is rated PG for thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan