Judge David Johnson is surprised yet again. Pleasantly surprised.
Everyone has problems. Not everyone has faith.
It's an unabashed Christian film; tackling issues like teen suicide, depression, self-mutilation, abortion, divorce, bullying, alcoholism, and even bomb threats.
Yet To Save a Life isn't ham-handed?
And is actually pretty good?
Better than good even?
Facts of the Case
Jake (Randy Wayne) is the star basketball player, the most popular kid in school, the boyfriend of a knockout blonde and the recipient of a full basketball scholarship to Louisville. But a tragedy throws his entire life off course: the suicide of his childhood best friend. Jake is besieged by questions of whether he could have done something to help, and his trajectory to glory and popularity hits a serious impasse.
An encounter with a youth pastor deeply affects him, and as he grapples with questions about faith, he beings to look at his life in a completely different way. And a purpose reveals itself.
I am usually pretty hard on Christian films. It's not because I'm a militant atheist. In fact, I'm a straight-up believer. But, brother, some of this stuff can be almost embarrassing. I know people loved Facing the Giants and Fireproof and that's great, but as exercises in effective filmmaking I felt there was much room for improvement.
Lately, I'm thinking there has to be something in the Holy Water, because I've been surprised by the quality of work coming from the Evangelical creative chambers. To Save a Life is the latest effort to blindside me with its adequacy, and it's so effective I'm tempted to begin expecting the best, not the worst, from of my moviemaking Christian comrades.
This is a genuinely moving film. While it tackles enough material to power a decade's worth of afterschool specials, it never felt overwrought or, worse, preachy. Now I'm reluctant to use the word "preachy," because it's an easy cliché to pull out when talking about a film of faith. But let's be honest right away, this is a Christian film and there is talk about God, along with a dude praying, and it espouses a very specific worldview. But it doesn't condescend and it doesn't get caught up in proselytizing. I think that's how most people would describe "preachy." To Save a Life hits the right balance between not shying away from its message and not wielding that message like a battle mace.
The film works both as inspirational tool for the churched and as an effective slice of evangelism; it shows Christian kids not as weirdos or dullards, but as real teens struggling with real problems that have found some peace. The central theme is to care about one another—even the strange kids in the corner with the scars on their forearms—and directed at young believers can prove to be a powerful jump-start to their burgeoning faith. I think both of these approaches have value and appeal, making To Save a Life one of the likelier Christian films to impact outside of the church.
All of these good intentions would be squelched if the movie stunk, though. It doesn't. It's quite good. The writing is simple but realistic, the characters flawed and interesting and the narrative complicated and, at times, harsh. Which I like. Just because you're a Jesus freak doesn't mean the Big Guy is going to roll out a life full of whimsy and success. This is a point drilled home with clarity. And it's the right one.
The situations are thorny, but feel grounded, buoyed by solid performances by Randy Wayne (who also, ironically, starred in the wildly sleazy Frat Party, but, whatever) and his supporting crew of actors who do "angst-ridden" with verve.
The Blu-ray features a 2.35:1 transfer that offers a moderate bump in clarity and resolution; it's a noticeable upgrade, but not eye-popping enough that you'll resent a DVD. (Also, there's a good chance your local youth group doesn't have Blu-ray in the budget.) A clean DTS-HD Master Audio pushes the peppy Christian rock soundtrack. Extras: a filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, gag reel, a 12-minute making-of featurette and music videos.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The primary antagonist of the film is a pastor's kid. This isn't disconcerting. The fact that he's a few degrees south of a cartoonish James Bond villain is.
To Save a Life is legit, well-made and moving. I see no reason why this couldn't actually change some people's hearts. Seriously.
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