To Save a Life
When I walked out of the theatre after seeing To Save a Life, I was pretty positive about this teen flick. This outreach project of California's New Song Community Church has the best production values I've seen from a church-made feature film, tells a good story, and captures both youth group culture and high school life pretty authentically. The movie is poignant, often funny and filled with memorable scenes. But in the weeks since I first saw it, I've been bothered by some weaknesses and unintended messages that have dampened my praise and recommendation.
Loosely based on the hit song "How To Save a Life" by The Fray, the movie opens after the public suicide of an outcast teen named Roger (Robert Bailey, Jr.). Stud basketball player Jake Taylor (Randy Wayne) was Roger's best friend until Jake's popularity accelerated and he began to see misfit Roger as a social speedbump. Broken, guilt-ridden, disillusioned, and confused, Jake begins to ask hard questions. This questioning and unhappiness leads Jake toward life change as he is pursued by a caring youth pastor, Chris (Joshua Weigel), evaluates his relationship with girlfriend Amy (Deja Kreutzberg), and makes a conscious effort to care for others more than self—to love on the unloved.
It's easy to tell To Save a Life was written by a longtime youth pastor—in this case, New Song's Jim Britts. Two reasons: 1) The film shows knowledge and understanding of teens, their world, pressures, and culture. 2) With noble aims, it tries to address and help almost every conceivable teen issue: suicide, bullying, cutting, drinking, drugs, parental pressure, premarital sex, fear of failure, dating, parents' divorce, hypocrisy, teen pregnancy, bad-influence friends, loneliness, self-worth, peer pressure, school violence, pressure to succeed, abortion, college stress, rejection. By the halfway point, it feels like an after-school special on, well, everything.
In fact, with so many subplots and themes shoved in, I kept thinking that To Save a Life might have made a better TV series, comparable to the popular (but not as well produced) The Secret Life of an American Teenager. Spreading all of the film's various themes (and Jake's various problems) over a season could have lessened how overwhelming (and a bit cheesy) they feel in two hours. Or maybe the movie could have just focused more tightly on Jake's personal trajectory of change and outreach after Roger's death without the added obstacles—including a villainous pastor's son, and an unneeded and weak climax involving a bomb scare. It is in showing Jake's questioning, emptiness, and transformation that the movie best excels. My favorite scenes were of Jake walking through his popular, party-lifestyle life growing more and more unfulfilled, slowly realizing the truth of Ecclesiastes that life is meaningless without God.
Jake's search for meaning leads him to grow more and more interested in what youth pastor Chris has to say. And that is when Jake's changes begin. Jake challenges Chris' hypocritical and apathetic youth group to be different than the world, to care and to reach out to the hurting. He starts a lunch group of Christians to sit together despite their different high school status levels. He seeks out hurting kids like Roger to give them the message that someone cares. And as Jake changes into this new creation, he realistically faces the temptations and trials of a new believer.