As anyone in the entertainment industry will tell you, it is a miracle that any film actually gets made. From the moment a writer sits down with an idea to the first time the movie actually graces the screen, a film has passed through the care of so many people, so many unique personalities and competing visions and interests, that even the simplest film is a defiance of the odds.
To Save a Life is not a simple film.
From the moment we meet Jake Taylor, high school (and soon-to-be college) basketball star, it is clear we are meeting a young man in crisis. Jake’s world has been upended by the recent and very public suicide of his childhood friend Roger – a relationship Jake had forsaken in recent years as his own star was on the rise. For Jake, the burden of guilt for the choices he did and did not make along the way have become a crushing rebuke. The young man is lost.
Unfortunately for Jake, introspection is not a welcome trait among his top-of-the-food chain peers. Instead, Jake finds common ground with Chris, a local Christian youth-pastor carrying his own guilt over Roger’s death. Chris, who struggles to navigate a true course through the often false world of Christian culture, detects an authenticity in Jake’s growing and self-imposed alienation from his equally false high school aristocracy. Jake detects in Chris an authentic faith. As the story unfolds, the two men help one another to stand against the tides of inconsistency in both worlds.
Critics of To Save a Life will likely point to its overt Christian-ness, but attempts to reduce the film to an evangelical infomercial are unfounded. The film is less about a young man’s experience becoming a Christian, and more an unflinching look at the struggles of youth in general, of which working out issues of faith is certainly a large and legitimate one. The film works very hard to avoid being cliché in its evangelism, maturely passing on many opportunities to sermonize that other faith-films might have lacked the restraint to avoid. It also never employs the cheap and insincere Come to Jesus and everything will start working out storytelling that often permeates such films.
In fact, I believe it is fair to say that To Save a Life gives the most accurate portrayal of the youth-Christian experience in this country that I have ever seen in film.
That is not to say that the film is perfect. While the movie sidesteps many of the pitfalls that often wreck films of this genre or budget, it does suffer to some degree from the sheer scope of what it tries to cover. First-time feature DP, C. Clifford Jones, and director Brian Baugh, a highly accomplished cinematographer in his own right, paint a compelling visual picture that never reminds you of the film’s modest budget, and the thematic elements are handled expertly. But the film sags a little under the weight of an overly-ambitious story that starts off with Jake as the reluctant convert, but spends the second half treating him as a modern-day Job, facing over the course of the film questions on the meaning of friendship, personal responsibility, abortion, adoption, parental infidelity and divorce, hypocrisy among believers, Darwinism on campus, cutting, teen-suicide, romance, and guilt.
The passion of the screenwriter Jim Britts (a seasoned youth worker) for the many hardships modern teenagers face is admirable, but far too many of those challenges are on display for a single film. The result is not only a film that is a bit longer than it should be, but one that at times is forced to under-develop characters and ideas that could be much more compelling if given time. Specifically missing is a more compelling look at the complexity of Chris, played believably and sincerely by Joshua Weigel, and his relationship with the elder-pastor of his church; and a deeper look at what promised to be a rich and relevant back-story for Jake’s girlfriend, Amy — a role which is nevertheless effective in large part due to the performance by Deja Kreutzberg.
Still, To Save a Life succeeds so well where other faith movies fail in large part because of the very issues that occasionally burden it. Britts’ screenplay, while long, never lacks honesty. In fact, there are moments in the film that seem almost unrealistic, not because they fail to capture the reality of human experience in any way, but rather because they are so genuine that they run afoul of the overly sophisticated, overly secularized youth stereotypes we are accustomed to seeing on the screen.
Baugh does an admirable job of getting solid performances out of a young and largely inexperienced cast, and deserves special credit for a moment between Jake and his mother, the under-utilized Laura Black, which is so artfully handled and authentic it requires no dialogue at all (Sorry for the vagueness, but no spoilers…).
Actor Randy Wayne continues to grow as a leading man giving Jake a vulnerability and sincerity that bonds him to the audience almost immediately. Sean Michael owns his character so well that I was convinced I had actually gone to school with Johnny Boy myself, and Kim Hidalgo gives a notable and nuanced performance in what could easily have been a two-dimensional role.
Conservative audiences will enjoy watching commentator and funnyman Steven Crowder in his engaging role as the film’s heavy, Doug Moore. (Of course, liberals might also enjoy watching Steven take a punch in the mouth in the second act, but one suspects Crowder can more than handle himself in real life.)
In the end, To Save a Life demonstrates the continuing evolution of faith-themed films from sub-par niche novelties toward full-blown, commercial art with broad cultural appeal. The film does not preach, but it does strongly and accurately advocate for its worldview, just like any other Hollywood film, although the worldview it advances is as un-Hollywood as can be imagined.
For that reason, To Save a Life is perhaps even more a miracle than the average feature film. Not only did it beat the odds, it did so with its soul still firmly attached.