Review: ‘Unsung Hero’ (2024), starring Daisy Betts, Joel Smallbone, Kirrilee Berger, Jonathan Jackson, Lucas Black, Candace Cameron Bure and Terry O’Quinn

April 25, 2024

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Unsung Hero.” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Paul Luke Bonenfant, Daisy Betts, Kirrilee Berger and Joel Smallbone. Pictured in front row, from left to right: Tenz McCall, JJ Pantano, Angus Caldwell and Diesel La Torraca. (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Unsung Hero” (2024)

Directed by Richard L. Ramsey and Joel Smallbone

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1991 to 1993, in the United States and briefly in Australia, the dramatic film “Unsung Hero” (based on true events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asian people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Financially broke music promoter/manager David Smallbone, his pregnant wife Helen Smallbone, and their children relocate from Australia to the U.S. city of Nashville, and go through various hardships as they try to launch the music career of daughter Rebecca. 

Culture Audience: “Unsung Hero” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Rebecca St. James, for KING & COUNTRY, and faith-based, family-oriented movies about persistence and hope during hard times.

Kirrilee Berger in “Unsung Hero” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Unsung Hero” takes place in the early 1990s, but this reliably inspirational biopic about the Smallbone showbiz dynasty has timeless themes about the power of family love and loyalty. It’s a faith-based drama that isn’t preachy about religion. The movie’s competent filmmaking and credible performances make “Unsung Hero” appealing to viewers who are inclined to watch these types of movies. What makes “Unsung Hero” stand out from other similar biopics about male-dominated families is its clear focus on telling the story from the perspective of the family matriarch, who is the namesake of the movie.

Written and directed by Richard L. Ramsey and Joel Smallbone, “Unsung Hero” takes place in mostly chronological order, from 1991 to 1993. The Smallbone family is originally from Australia. Joel Smallbone and his younger brother Luke Smallbone are the members of for KING & COUNTRY, a Grammy-winning contemporary Christian duo. Their older sister is Grammy-winning contemporary Christian singer Rebecca St. James, also known as Rebecca Jean. Their siblings are also in the entertainment business. Their father David Smallbone was a concert promoter and is a longtime manager in the music business.

“Unsung Hero” begins in September 1991, with a scene of the Smallbone family being detained at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol station at Los Angeles International Airport, where the family needs to get on flight from Los Angeles to Nashville. (St. James has a cameo as a flight attendant in “Unsung Hero.”) David Smallbone (played by Joel Smallbone) and his wife Helen Smallbone (played by Daisy Betts) have attracted a lot of attention from customs officials because the Smallbones are a large family. Also part of this travel entourage are the children of David and Helen: 14-year-old daughter Rebecca (played by Kirrilee Berger); 13-year-old son Daniel Smallbone (played by Paul Luke Bonenfant); son Ben (played by Tenz McCall), who’s about 10 or 11; 7-year-old son Joel (played by Diesel La Torraca); 5-year-old son Luke (played by JJ Pantano); and son Joshua, nicknamed Josh (played by Angus Caldwell), who’s about 3 or 4 years old.

The Smallbones have traveled from their former hometown of Sydney to start a new life in the United States. During this airport scene, the movie briefly flashes back to the less-than-ideal circumstances under which David and Helen decided to leave their family and friends behind in Australia for an uncertain future in America. For years, David was a successful Sydney-based concert promoter with a specialty in Christian music. A flashback scene shows David holding Joel on stage as David introduces a concert by the Christian heavy metal band Stryper.

However, in 1991, David’s fortunes took a steep downturn when Australia was hit with a recession. David promoted singer Amy Grant’s Australian tour that year and expected to make a lot of money from it. A scene in the movie shows Amy Grant (played by Rachel Hendrix) performing a concert on this Australian tour, and the auditorium is only about half full with audience members. David lost about $500,000 on the tour, which wiped out his family’s finances. In addition, the tour tarnished David’s reputation in the Australian music business, so he had trouble finding work in Australia.

David wants to continue to work in the music industry. And so, he decides the best thing to do is start over in the United States, specifically in Nashville, even though David and Helen don’t have any family or friends in Nashville. Helen, who is pregnant with their seventh child, reluctantly agrees and says they should give it a try for two years. And if things don’t work out after those two years, Helen thinks they should consider going back to Australia. David, Helen and their children just have a six-month visa at the beginning of their relocation to America.

The family members of David and Helen don’t want David, Helen and the kids to leave Australia. These relatives have varying degrees of acceptance about this relocation to America. David’s father James (played by Terry O’Quinn) is the most optimistic, while Helen’s mother Jean Francis (played by Roslyn Gentle) thinks this relocation is an unwise decision and keeps urging Helen and her Smallbone family to come back to Australia. “Unsung Hero” has a lot of the expected ups and downs of family struggles during this two-year period.

“Unsung Hero” also has an accurate depiction some of the crushing disappointments that can happen in an instant in the music business, even with a promising deal in place. David’s plan in Nashville was to start a record label with a well-known American artist, whose contract with another record company was ending. However, that plan falls through when the artist accepts the record company’s offer to renew the contract.

With no job prospects lined up, David struggles to find work. The Smallbone family members get some help from a friendly married couple they meet in church: compassionate Jed Albright (played by Lucas Black) and perky Kay Albright (played by Candace Cameron Bure), who generously give their van to the Smallbone family and offer to pay a few of the Smallbone family’s bills. Hillary Scott, the lead singer of Lady A (formerly known as Lady Antebellum), has a small role in “Unsung Hero” as Luanne Meece, the song leader of the church.

David and the older kids earn money by going around the neighborhood and doing low-paying jobs, such as mowing lawns. Eventually, the Smallbones operate a small home-based business doing house care services for other people, including interior cleaning. However, it’s not enough to get the Smallbone out of their financial pit. Although they are never homeless, the Smallbones often go hungry because they don’t have enough money for proper meals. David and Helen also decide to homeschool their children.

David, Helen and some of the kids end up getting a house care job at the mansion of Christian rock star Eddie DeGarmo (played by Jonathan Jackson), an artist who was rejected by David for an Australian tour when Eddie was part of the duo DeGarmo & Key. At the time, David thought he was too successful of a concert promoter to do a DeGarmo & Key tour, and he set his sights on an Amy Grant tour, which turned out to be a disaster. David is somewhat humiliated (and humbled) when he finds himself cleaning Eddie’s toilets as part of David’s current job.

Rebecca shows she has above-average musical talent as a singer and songwriter, so there are attempts to get her a record deal, but those attempts come with their share of rejections. “Unsung Hero” has some very good performances, particularly from Joel Smallbone and Betts, who skillfully anchor the movie as parents David and Helen. The immigrant family members persist against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, even when they have moments of self-doubt and naysayers telling them to give up. The cast members do their own singing, including a cover version of Rebecca St. James’ “You Make Everything Beautiful.”

No one in the family is depicted as “perfect” or too good to be true. The movie realistically shows some of the family arguments that can happen during this tension-filled time. David’s pride also gets in the way of some of his decisions that cause some alienation. In addition, Helen (the more patient parent) has moments where she struggles to hold on to her dignity and her temper in situations where many people would lose both. The movie is a worthy depiction of how Helen was the family’s source of strength in many ways.

Some of the dialogue in “Unsung Hero” can get a bit corny, but they are delivered with a lot of sincerity. In an early scene in the movie, David says when he tells Helen why they should start over and Nashville so he can continue to work in the Christian music industry: “I can’t sing, and I can’t play, but I can connect people to something higher and greater from the here and now. This is it. This is my last chance.”

Viewers should also keep in mind that the end result of the two-year period depicted in “Unsung Hero” is not typical of what most people experience when they want to be successful in the music industry. For most people, it takes much longer than two years to achieve what the Smallbones achieved in the two-year period shown in the movie, with the Smallbones having the added challenge of being recent immigrants to the United States.

There are several scenes where Helen and the children talk about praying, but the movie can still be relatable to viewers who are not religious because the story has an overall message of hope. “Unsung Hero” pulls at heartstrings in all the right places but doesn’t feel manipulative. This real-life story is made all the more meaningful in its message that hard work, talent, luck and the right connections can lead to success, but that success is better with the support of a loving family.

Lionsgate will release “Unsung Hero” in U.S. cinemas on April 26, 2024. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in select U.S. cinemas on April 24, 2024.

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