Friday, January 15, 2010

Movie Review: To Save A Life

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see a special screening of the upcoming film, To Save A Life. Written by a real-life youth pastor--you can see an interview with screenwriter Jim Britts here--the film focuses on high school senior Jake Taylor as he navigates a series of difficulties that develop after a childhood friend commits suicide. As Jake's life seems to spiral out of control, he begins to seek the counsel and comfort of a local youth pastor, Chris. Searching for answers to his spiritual questions, he begins to draw closer to God, causing some significant changes in his worldview and social standing.

This is unlike any "Christian" film I've seen before due to its lack of heavy-handedness and overt sentimentality. (I don't really like using the term "Christian" as an adjective, but you know what I mean). The dialogue feels authentic, the acting and production are solid, and the story moves along at a steady pace. The filmmakers are willing to take some risks, including a party scene, cussing, and a brief sex scene. Thus, the film is rated PG-13. None of these factors are included without purpose; all are integral to the character development and make sense within the story arc. There aren't useless scenes thrown in for comedy--think Fireproof--nor does it try to awkwardly tie together all the loose ends with a happy Jesus-y ending--think Facing the Giants. Next to The Passion of the Christ, it might be the most quality "Christian" film I've seen.

This isn't to say that To Save A Life is flawless. The inclusion of a pastor's son as the antagonist of the film feels a bit out of place, like a subtle jab at p.k.'s (pastor's kids). It's also an emotional shotgun blast. Much like the film Thirteen, the filmmakers are ambitious with the amount of teen issues and themes they attempt to address. Divorce, suicide, drugs, alcohol, sex, peer pressure, cutting, and religious hypocrisy all end up on Jake's growing list of struggles, forcing him to deal with a seemingly insurmountable number of trials by the final act. Sadly, this isn't too far from the truth; the stories I've heard from junior highers' lives can be just as tragic and overwhelming.

While To Save A Life isn't as subtle or nuanced as most of the films I typically enjoy, perhaps its willingness to portray a teen's spiritual journey in all its messiness drew me in. The portrayal of youth group is strikingly realistic, down to the awkwardness of silly games--they have a soda chugging contest!--and the diversity of the group. Some teens are there to grow closer to God, some are hypocrites or forced to be there, and some are the unnoticed sitting in the margins. Church and Christianity aren't depicted as a perfect solution to all life's problems; rather, a life of following Christ paradoxically brings troubles of its own while also being the best possible way to live. No character is perfect in this film, which highlights the grace Christ offers and His power to change anyone's life. At a pivotal moment, Jake literally stands up in youth group and literally cusses the students out for not taking Chris and Christ--wait, are their names similar for a reason?--seriously enough to allow their lives to be transformed. Amen.

Overall, I'd highly recommend anyone involved in the lives of teens--pastors, volunteers, parents, coaches, teachers, etc.--to check out To Save A Life. The PG-13 rating and content might be frowned upon by parents of younger teens, but the film could be a great conversation starter for families and youth groups. Check out the film's website here, and see it in theaters next weekend!

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