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Unsung Hero

Being a fan of the Christian pop duo for KING & COUNTRY or having even the slightest interest in the musical genre probably goes a long way toward making the drama “Unsung Hero” more meaningful. For everyone else, it plays like a blandly well-intentioned tale of triumph over adversity and an earnest celebration of the importance of family. 

And what a family it is. The massive Aussie brood at the film’s center provides both the inspiration for the story and the behind-the-scenes machinery to tell it. Joel Smallbone, half of the singing group with brother Luke, co-wrote and co-directed the film with Richard L. Ramsey. He also stars as his own father, David Smallbone, a music promoter who moved his pregnant wife and their six kids from Sydney to Nashville in the early 1990s with dreams of making it big in the United States. (A younger actor, Diesel La Torraca, plays Joel as a child with a natural yearning to perform.) Stick around for the credits, and you’ll discover how various members of the clan appear in minor supporting roles throughout. 

But this isn’t a music biopic or even an origin story, even though much of the plot centers on whether older sister Rebecca can secure a record contract with her pure, clear voice, which could rescue the family financially. (Spoiler: she does and goes on to become Grammy winner Rebecca St. James; for KING & COUNTRY has won multiple Grammys, as well.) This is, as the title suggests, a tribute to the person who held the family together when everything was falling apart: matriarch Helen Smallbone, played with optimism and authenticity by Daisy Betts. “Unsung Hero” follows the highs and lows of the Smallbones' efforts to stay afloat in a foreign land, but Helen’s resiliency—as well as her faith—provides a consistent through-line. The casting of Kirrilee Berger as Rebecca is particularly effective since she so closely resembles Betts, adding believability to their mother-daughter bond. 

We know these attractive and talented people will be fine even before they set foot in their local church and meet the big-hearted neighbors who will rally around them in times of need. It’s all very affirming to the Christian audience it’s geared toward and somewhat predictable from a narrative standpoint.  

What is surprising, though, is that there are actual moments of raw emotion within the workmanlike direction and episodic script. Things get ugly. Pride takes over. Having dragged his family halfway around the world to an empty rental home, and with job prospects falling through left and right, David feels depressed and resentful. He lashes out at the friendly fellow churchgoer (Lucas Black), whom he feels has been too generous alongside his perky wife, played by Hallmark Channel and Great American Family mainstay Candace Cameron Bure. Helen, in a rare show of anger, even explodes at David at one point. 

“Unsung Hero” could have used more of such emotional honesty. But it ultimately must deliver a broad uplift that’s palatable for the whole family, so it tends to skim the surface. And aside from the parents and Rebecca, the characterization is woefully lacking; the other kids are all kind of a perky blur. Joel Smallbone has a solid screen presence in what must have been a challenging role, but his choices behind the camera with Ramsey feel mostly pedestrian.  

The ‘90s costume design is on point, though—so many bad sweaters on display—and the soundtrack of secular pop songs, including Jesus Jones and Seal, is period-specific if a little on-the-nose lyrically. For the most part, “Unsung Hero” does what David Smallbone himself didn’t do: It shies away from taking risks. 

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Unsung Hero movie poster

Unsung Hero (2024)

Rated PG

112 minutes

Cast

Joel Smallbone as David Smallbone

Daisy Betts as Helen Smallbone

Kirrilee Berger as Rebecca Smallbone

Jonathan Jackson as Eddie Degarmo

Candace Cameron Bure as Kay Albright

Terry O'Quinn as Grandpa James

Lucas Black as Jed Albright

Director

Writer

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