To Save A Life Is Pretty Good, Actually
That's not that unusual, particularly with Christian films: many critics are secularists and most moviegoers who bother to see Christian films at all are Christian and maybe just a teensy bit biased in their favor. Moreover, Christian films tend to suffer the effects of low budgets even when the writing is good.
Before I go off preaching on films and criticism, I'd better come right out and and admit that I don't get to the movies much. I also haven't kept up with the fairly new independent Christian film movement. I saw Amazing Grace on vid and liked it, though the parade of historical characters kept me flipping madly through Britannica for half of it. But I'm generally reticent about theater films. My feeling is that if I'm going to sit in the dark for a couple of hours and can't even bring along knitting, I'd better be seeing a world-class bit of cinema--no smarmy writing or ham actors allowed.
My film viewing choices therefore tend to be subject to the advice and occasional whims of others. Hon. Daughter Number One, a certifiable film junkie, got me into Up by declaring "You have to see Up." So there. (I really liked it.) But when a couple of months ago I considered attending a showing of Facing the Giants at our parish I was stopped dead by said daughter:
"It's Prosperity Gospel fodder," she pointed out. "Look, at the beginning of the movie the protagonist isn't a Christian. His football team sucks, his wife can't get pregnant, and his truck is broken down. By the end he's accepted Christ, his team wins, his wife is pregnant and somebody gives him a new truck. You know real life isn't that simple. It's bad theology." Thus I still have to plead ignorance of that film and its companion, Fireproof, although I feel I should watch them out of regional loyalty. Not that that helps the Falcons much.
Recently, though, our parish youth director started promoting To Save A Life. I was intrigued, and started reading what I could find on it. I noticed that an LA Times critic, going against the grain, had reviewed it favorably, and that several of the negative critics' reviews couldn't seem to get past the film's religious bent to review it on its merits as a film. That was irritating. It's often enough a critic or other film "expert" weighs in on singularly repulsive subject matter in a film with commentary along the lines of:
"Of course the message of Birth of a Nation can't be condoned, but Griffith's directing was inspired..."
Thus I went and saw To Save a Life and thus follows my opinion of it, as concise and free of spoilers as I can get it. Disagree with my viewpoint or Christianity or the directing if you must; at the very least the message can be condoned. I, for one, think the message and the film are both worthy of praise.
The story, first of all, is believable. Some liberties are taken in the interest of condensing it into a film (it's rare we receive two earthshattering pieces of bad news in one afternoon, after all, and repeated kegger scenes--after the cops raid one, why don't the rest of the 'rents figure out putting the kid in charge when you leave town for the weekend is a bad idea?--give the impression that all these kids do is party, party, party) but the film doesn't lose much realism by condensation. In a couple of hours it comes to grips with most of the big issues teens today have to deal with: bullying, cliques, suicide, cutting, drinking, sex, pregnancy, figuring out where God fits into it all, and keeping the faith when it would be easier to give up are explored with compassion but not sentimentality.
The characters are realistic. I've read that the script was written by a youth pastor, and I can tell he's been paying attention to his kids. The young actors look, talk, and act like real teenagers. [Note: This opinion has been independently confirmed by five or six real teenagers from Hon. Daughter No. 2's youth group.] The Christian teens are thankfully far more normal than those usually portrayed in secular productions: they can't be singled out of the student body by excessive modesty in dress and tease each other spiritedly, if without the venom seen in other characters. The two villains of the piece, an obnoxious jock and a preacher's son who's a sort of stoner Uriah Heep are a bit unidimensional in their nastiness, but they're not major characters, either. The acting is good, especially considering most of the cast seem to be relative unknowns. (Hon. Daughter No. 2 thought she'd seen the actor who played Johnny Garcia in something, but didn't recognize anyone else.) Nobody overacts, thank goodness.
Cinematography is professional and very well done. Multiple-angle shots of keg party scenes are used effectively to evoke the chaos of the events. Tricky shooting isn't overused, though, and the camera work enhances the storytelling rather than overwhelming it.
The film isn't preachy. Yes, the protagonist's personal crisis leads him to faith, and yes, the hip youth pastor preaches a few times during the film. That doesn't make it preachy, unless you think a youth pastor exhorting his charges to care about the kids nobody else cares about in the wake of a teen suicide is preachy. The film is overtly religious, but it's nonsense to suggest that it beats the viewer over the head with that perspective. If anything, it's brutally honest about sincere doubt and the reasons that drive many people away from church. And it doesn't sugarcoat the fact that Christianity is not a get-out-of-misery- free card.
One of the most refreshing aspects of the film is its depiction of a multiracial community in which race doesn't seem to be a big deal. The church and youth group scenes show a more diverse congregation than I suspect is found in most churches (that is, unless they're Catholic!) The youth pastor models a fulfilling Christan marriage that is also interracial; though his wife appears in only a few scenes their sense of partnership is evident. Even at the high school, cliquiness isn't explicitly along racial lines. (I discussed this with one of our Youth Group Moms, who is black, however: she felt that race could be a factor in an early scene in which girls invite the protagonist to a party but tell him to get rid of his black friend Roger. I see Roger as an object of scorn among "coolies" of all races because of a physical handicap, but I suppose the scene is open to interpretation.) In any case, I think the scenes of the church kids and the youth pastor's home life beautifully depict real "no Gentile or Jew" Christianity.
So regarding To Save a Life, I'm gonna have to give a thumbs down to the critics who panned it, and a thumbs up to anyone who found something positive they could take away from it. It's unquestionably a good movie for teens to see, but it's well-done and smart enough for adults as well. If you're an adult with a few teens in your life, take them, and after you've seen the film go discuss it over coffee or ice cream. If you've been feeling a little un-hip about their day-to-day concerns, I guarantee it'll be a worthwhile outing.