'To Save A Life': A Sermon Aimed Right At The Choir

Randy Wayne

King Of The World: Jake Taylor (Randy Wayne) is a basketball star who seems to have it all — the girl, the bod, the scholarship — until the suicide of a childhood friend turns his life upside down. New Song Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption New Song Pictures

To Save a Life

  • Director: Brian Baugh
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 120 minutes

Rated PG-13: Mature themes involving teen suicide, drinking, drugs and sex

With: Randy Wayne, Deja Kreutzberg, Joshua Weigel, Steven Crowder, and Robert Bailey Jr.

In the world created by director Brian Baugh and screenwriter Jim Britts, obstacles can be overcome, depression vanquished, hearts and minds won and — as the title implies — lives saved, all with the simple turn of an earnestly delivered phrase. That eloquent earnestness is a power attained, the film suggests, through the development of a relationship with God. Whether or not you buy the easy solutions presented by the film depends, in large part, on whether you are on board with the Christian philosophy that underpins it.

Church-sponsored filmmaking has become a niche market of its own in recent years, and even the major studios have picked up on its lucrative potential by starting specialty divisions devoted to faith-based filmmaking. In that subgenre of modestly budgeted films, To Save a Life is miles ahead in terms of production values and a conscious avoidance of overt proselytizing. It will likely be an enormous success with the evangelical communities at which it's targeted. That doesn't save it from being an utter failure outside that narrow context.

The film documents one high school basketball star's discovery of faith. Jake Taylor (Randy Wayne) seems to have it all: He's dating the school's most beautiful cheerleader, Amy (Deja Kreutzberg); he's soon headed to the University of Louisville on a full athletic scholarship; he's generally enjoying his senior year as an attractive, athletic, golden-haired high school god.

But the first assaults on his comfortable life are thrown at him quickly. The film opens on Jake standing at a funeral, away from the ceremony in that solitary space reserved (in the movies) for guilty mourners. There's a glowering mixture of sadness and confusion on his face, an expression that will turn out to be one of about three notes that Wayne brings to the performance.

In a series of seizure-inducing rapid-fire flashbacks, Baugh shows that the funeral is for a suicidal outcast who was once Jake's best friend — and that that friendship ended when Jake ditched him to join the cool crowd.

The story of Jake's coming to terms with his own responsibility for the tragedy would be more than enough narrative material for one movie. But Britts loads the story down with subplots enough to drive a half-dozen after-school specials. Not coincidentally, that's also the treacly tone that Baugh allows to pervade the proceedings.

So in addition to the suicide of his former pal, Jake is also confronted with teen-drama staples like divorce (his parents are headed for it), premarital sex (he has it), underage drinking (he does it) and drug use. (He just says no — heroes of Christian films can only sink so far, apparently.) On top of that, Britts piles on even heavier hitters like teen pregnancy, abortion and self-mutilation.

To its credit, To Save a Life can be as critical of hypocrisy within the church as it is of the emptiness of a life outside of it, insistently promoting the value of togetherness and social-support structures over duty-bound church attendance. Those are valuable messages. But the film only pays lip service to the severity of the problems teens can face, offering up little in the way of tangible solutions. It becomes little more than a parade of cliches and two-dimensional stereotypes. Worse, it does a disservice to the many real, honestly troubled teens out there looking for a lifeline.

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