A school shooting, and a suicide in the first 15 minutes of the film. A sex scene, drinking games and a keg in the first 20. It doesn’t take long to figure out that To Save a Life (out January 22) is not your typical Christian film.
The good news is, the movie doesn’t have big shoes to fill. From the pure silliness of 1970s “end times” films to Kirk Cameron’s phoned-in performance in 2008’s Fireproof, Christian films are rarely enjoyable, even to the market they’re marketed to. To Save a Life wastes no time setting up the story. Childhood pals Jake and Roger do everything together, until Jake hits the social “big time” with his exceptional basketball skills and sun-bleached hair. When it comes to picking his best friend or the hot girl, Jake goes with his hormones, leaving Roger to limp around school alone, on a leg permanently disfigured from saving Jake from an oncoming car.
For Jake, things are great until senior year, when Roger walks into school, and commits suicide with a hallway full of peers to witness it. Jake’s initial defense is to ignore the situation, but a fight with his girlfriend and pressure from his overbearing father lead to some serious questions about the life he’s leading. After the cops bust a keg party and his girlfriend runs off with his truck, Jake calls a local youth pastor for a ride. Conversations about faith and meaning ensue.
No, Jake isn’t converted on the spot. But the seeds of doubt about the shallowness of his “basketball and beer” existence do lead him to check out church, and to alter some of his decisions.
The most pleasing thing about watching To Save a Life is that it feels like a genuine story is being told, instead of the usual Christian move to make a film where the characters spend a solid hour setting up a Sunday school lesson at the end. Leading man Randy Wayne (Jake Taylor) and his girlfriend Amy Biggs (Deja Kreutzberg) do act like teens you’d meet at your local high school. Friendly and energetic, even if they do party and engage in casual sex on the weekends. Even the film’s “quirky youth group girl” and the “conniving pastor’s kid” hit pretty close to the mark on how comparable teens in real life would act.
However, for all of director Brian Braugh’s courage to show teenage life as it actually is, he stumbles in a few places. While the writing moves the story along, this isn’t a movie you and your friends will be quoting next year, or even next week. The hip-hop songs used in the party scenes just aren’t very good, and it’s noticeable. There’s a scene that is more or less stolen from the real-life events of social-networking help guru Jamie Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love on Her Arms, that will assuredly make the audience groan at its fakeness.
But all the story ultimately shines through the minor scuffs. By the time the movie nears its end, binge-drinking, casual sex, cutting, loneliness and the shark tank that is the high school social scene have all been grappled with in an authentic manner. And as the social groups within Pacific High School clash with their own decisions and each other, it becomes very clear that, for once, a Christian film isn’t going to wrap up with an overly simplistic moral lesson. Rather than a story of a bad kid who becomes good, the plot is layered with teens in a variety of social situations who are forced to wrestle with why they act, judge others and believe as they do.
The biggest question surrounding To Save a Life is not whether it’s a movie worth seeing. It is. It’s by no means the best movie you’ll see this year, but the film does wrap you in a compelling story. The biggest problem the movie faces is whether or not it can gain traction and reach the audience that needs this message. Because of the content (the 10-second sex scene, three swear words and one beer keg) some Christians have already complained to the Christian radio stations currently supporting it. And teenagers and twentysomethings, even the ones who are in church two or three days a week, aren’t normally going to pay eight bucks to watch a “Christian movie.”
Still, a day after watching it, I can’t shake the feeling that this movie will change something. It’s got the potential to do what Switchfoot and P.O.D. did in music circa early 2003; to show mainstream culture that some Christian-generated media is worth taking seriously.
Seth “Tower” Hurd can be heard on Chicago’s 89.7 Shine.FM (www.shine.fm/tower) and can be seen on “The Merge Out Loud,” a music interview show airing on Direct TV’s channel 378, and streaming online at www.themergeshow.com.