- - Monday, February 20, 2017

While Grammy Award-winning Christian singer Joel Smallbone continues his venture into faith-based filmmaking, he still considers music his primary love.

“Call me biased, but I would say that music has a greater potential of shifting someone’s psyche,” Mr. Smallbone, the Australian singer who, along with brother Luke sings in the popular Christian band For King & Country, told The Washington Times.

Lucky for Mr. Smallbone, he’s enjoying the best of both worlds. The band’s hit song “Priceless,” which was nominated for a Grammy in 2016, was also featured in a faith-based film by the same name. The independently produced “Priceless” hit theaters in October and was released on DVD and Blu-ray on Valentine’s Day, the same day that Universal’s “Fifty Shades Darker” debuted in theaters nationwide.

While “Fifty Shades Darker” leans heavily on steamy sex scenes, “Priceless” examines the sinister side of sexuality through the dark lens of human trafficking — offering up hope through faith.

During its limited theatrical run late last year, the film grossed $1.5 million, according to IMDB.com. And while “Fifty Shades Darker” has made nearly $90 million, moviegoers polled on Rotten Tomatoes gave “Priceless” an audience score of 93 percent, with “Fifty Shades Darker” at a distant 59 percent.

Mr. Smallbone believes audiences are hungry for positive affirmation like that offered in his film. It’s something his band has encountered regularly, most notably when they first began handing out souvenirs called “priceless necklaces” at concerts. The necklaces feature an Australian penny and are meant as a reminder to the wearer that they have infinite worth.

“It was exciting, but … it was a bit alarming to see the response from folks with this necklace,” the singer said. “It was almost as if — particularly our generation — was starving for this affirmation.”

Mr. Smallbone estimates that a half-million men and women and boys and girls have grabbed one of these necklaces to rally around the “cause” of positivity.

Given the popularity of the necklaces and the message of affirmation, Joel and Luke Smallbone approached their brother, film director Ben Smallbone, to expand upon the campaign, asking Ben, “What do you think about producing a film and kind of taking this message to the silver screen?” Joel Smallbone said.

“His eyes lit up, and he recalled this documentary that he worked on a few years prior that was partially built around a story set in the world of human trafficking,” Mr. Smallbone recalled of his brother Ben’s reaction.

“Priceless” follows James (Mr. Smallbone) who, while struggling with his wife’s death, can’t hold down a job and eventually loses his daughter to protective services. Desperate and at a crossroads, James agrees to drive a box truck on a shady, one-time trip cross-country for cash — no questions asked.

However, when James discovers that he’s actually transporting two frightened sisters destined for the sex trade, he sets out to save them.

“It’s a love story of sister and sister, of father and daughter, of man and woman — it’s kind of that trio of love stories,” Mr. Smallbone says of the film.

Supporting cast includes Bianca Santos (“The Duff,” “Ouija”), Jim Parrack (“Suicide Squad,” “Fury”), Amber Midthunder (“Hell or Highwater,” “The Originals”) and David Koechner (“Anchorman,” “The Office”).

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, trafficking cases have been on the rise over the past five years: 3,279 cases in 2012, 4,884 in 2013, 5,042 in 2014, 5,526 in 2015 and 7,572 cases in 2016.

Predictably, the most populated states lead the way: California (1,323), Texas (670), Florida (550), Ohio (375) and New York (327) top the list for 2016.

Thus, for Mr. Smallbone, the topic of human trafficking is too big to ignore.

“I would go so far as to say it is the great epidemic of our age,” he said. “Statistically, from what I understand, if the trend continues, the trafficking industry will overtake the drug trade as the most lucrative illegal industry in the world.

“But the difference between the drug trade and [human] trafficking … is that human trafficking is attacking the very fabric of society and human life as we know it. It is manipulating women into believing something about themselves, and it’s really, by and large, training men to think of a woman as an object rather than a soul.”

After “Priceless” Mr. Smallbone envisages a new film project that resembles the biblical story of Solomon: a man whose fantastic wealth and wisdom can never bring him any lasting satisfaction.

“We’re in the works with (“Priceless” producer) Steve Barnett,” Mr. Smallbone said of the yet-untitled work. “There’s certainly a romance tied to it, but it’s much more introspective, in some ways, then I think ‘Priceless’ is.”

“Priceless” is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and on VOD.

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