In its own way, To Save a Life is having as big an impact on what constitutes a "Christian film" as did Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
When the latter was released into theaters with an R rating for graphic violence, Christian retailers, radio stations, pundits, and critics had to seriously rethink what it meant to be responsible to their constituencies. For many, "safe for the whole family" simply had to become less of a priority.
To Save a Life—which was produced by New Song Community Church in Oceanside, California and written by Biola grad Jim Britts, the church's youth pastor—was widely released in theaters by Samuel Goldwyn earlier this year with a PG-13 rating for "mature thematic elements involving teen suicide, teen drinking, some drug content, disturbing images and sexuality."
Now Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing the film on Blu-ray and DVD—and yes, you will be able to find it in Christian bookstores... but with a new purple sticker from the Dove Foundation that labels it as a "Faith-Based" film but not a "Faith-Friendly" flick safe for the whole family.
This is progress of a sort and a pretty radical shift for the Dove Foundation, which has successfully branded itself as the Evangelical alternative to MPAA ratings.
It's "a little bit of a bummer that could scare people away from the DVD," Britts told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But the fact that films like To Save a Life have forced the Dove Foundation's hand is good news for filmmaking. It's odd that a film as exceedingly Christian in its worldview and aims can't be deemed "Faith-Friendy." But at least it's not being locked out of the market entirely simply because of realistic, non-gratuitous depiction of teen sex and drug use.
Now, why did that happen exactly?
Because To Save a Life is a good film, and one to which Christian audiences (and opinion-makers) have responded positively. It also helps, of course, when a Christian film gets the backing of mainstream studios like Goldwyn and Sony—just ask the Kendrick brothers—but the bottom line, as director Brian Baugh told me when I interviewed him for Hollywood Jesus in January, the filmmakers' objective was to make a film that didn't "suck." They succeeded.
To Save a Life, in a nutshell, tells the story of Jake Taylor, BMOC and college-bound athlete, whose world starts falling apart with the tragic death of a childhood friend. The story touches on cutting, suicide, teen pregnancy, marital discord—and the rampant hypocrisy and often unhelpful attitudes that troubled kids find in the Church.
Not Much to Criticize
While I found the film's use of flashbacks, and the style of their presentation, exceedingly awkward and distracting, there's not much else here to criticize. In fact, there's a great deal to praise. Britts, as one of the film's producers, had the good sense to raise a decent budget and recruit professionals for all the key roles in the production—and director Baugh and his leads hit all the right notes.
As Jake Taylor, Randy Wayne is both convincing and appealing—neither overly studly nor emotive. Deja Kreutzberg plays Jake's girlfriend Amy with pure California Girl appeal, yet dares to look like hell when a scene calls for it. Best of all, Joshua Weigel—himself a director of short films—is almost what you'd call a revelation as youth pastor Chris, a well-meaning near-disaster of a buddy-buddy teen baby-sitter whose world is also shaken up by the death of Jake's childhood buddy.
Doesn't Let Anyone Off the Hook
This is a film that lets no one off the hook. It's a screwed-up world we live in, and we all contribute to it in some fashion, despite our best intentions. To Save a Life doesn't hold out empty promises of a false but wide and comfy road to salvation. Instead, it demonstrates quite clearly that the path to God is narrow and treacherous—and that we travel it one life at a time.
I'm encouraged that the Christian publishing industry, a necessary evil of sorts here in the West, has finally seen fit to acknowledge that "family friendly" isn't the only viable form that products for the Christian niche market may take.
Now, if they'd just come up with better labels. Is To Save a Life really "Not Faith-friendly" simply because it fails to kiss up to the establishment?
To Save a Life is rated PG-13, for the reasons cited in the review above. The rating is appropriate... and the Dove Foundation warnings are entirely redundant. What a strange world in which we live.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of To Save a Life. The special features are decent enough, but unremarkable.