For most of you who read my reviews, I can be rather harsh when reviewing movies of a Christian nature. One needs to look no further than my scathing review of Fireproof. More than often they tend to be too preachy with messages and heavy themes that suggest a way of life too strict for many people’s tastes. Naturally, I was a little skeptical when I received To Save a Life. But as the movie teaches us: one should not be judged on appearances alone.
Today is the funeral of Roger Dawson (played by Robert Bailey Jr) who committed suicide at the tender age of seventeen. We see many people in attendance including one other fellow high school student named Jake Taylor (played by Randy Wayne). As it turns out, we are treated to a flashback that shows Jake and Roger as best friends growing up.
The kids were friends for many years until Roger saves Jake from being run over by a car. As a result, Roger is injured and to spend the rest of his life walking with a limp. The two are still friends at this point but when Jake starts to excel at sports, Roger gets slowly left behind. It culminates when they become freshmen in high school and Jake becomes the star basketball player. Jake is given the choice between going to the after-party and hanging out with Roger. Jake unfortunately chooses the former.
Jake now spends his time with his new friends and Roger disappears into the background. As a result, Roger becomes depressed and ultimately suicidal. This culminates into the day where Roger comes to school with a gun. He fires a few shots into the air before turning the gun into himself and delivering the fatal blow. Jake is there in plain site to witness the whole event.
Back in the present, school is suspended for two and a half weeks to recover from the event. Grief counselors and youth group leaders are on hand to help the students through this difficult time. One of them is Chris Vaughn (played by Joshua Weigel) who runs a local church group. He hands a card to Jake and lets him know that if he ever needs help to call Chris and he will be there to lend a hand.
Later, at a party Jake and his girlfriend Amy (played by Deja Kreutzberg ) have sex. When they wake up, they realize the police are breaking up the party. Jake tries to get his druthers together but Amy puts on her clothes and bolts, taking Jake’s truck in the process. Jake eventually does find his way out of there without incident. He roams the streets and calls Amy and his friend Doug Moore (played by Steven Crowder) but gets no answer.
This is the point where he decides to call Chris. Chris answers and comes to get Jake. They spend some time talking in the car and Chris asks Jake to come see his youth group later that week. Jake takes some time to think about it and ultimately comes. There he meets a bunch of other students including Andrea Stevens (played by Kim Hidalgo). The meeting leads to a powerful message treating your fellow classmate as equals and to help those in need.
As a result, Jake starts to change his way of thinking. He reaches out to a student named Jonny Garcia (played by Sean Michael) who was listed as a friend of Roger on his Ourspace web page. They eventually become friends but Jake’s old friends become increasingly estranged and separated from him. His home life isn’t doing him any favors either as his parents constantly fight. Can Jake make the right choices and see that life is not about being popular but about being real.
As mentioned in the header, I wasn’t sure what to make of this film and was worried that it would fall into the trap of similar Christian films and become a 90 minute (or in this case 120 minute) sermon. But just like God’s teachings, I proceeded forth with an open mind. I was pleasantly surprised. To Save a Life doesn’t hit you over the head with a hammer about God and religion, it just plays around it. More importantly, it delivers a strong and much welcomed message about acceptance.
The cast for To Save a Life is the best cast I’ve seen in a Christian based film and actually delivers a stronger performance than many bigger budget films. Randy Wayne is very convincing as Jake Taylor, he certainly goes through an emotional journey. At the end, he has changed but not without forgetting who he is. Strong performances were also turned in by Deja Kreutzberg, Kim Hidalgo and Sean Michael. Safe to say, there were no weak points in any of the actors on display here.
However, I would be lying if I said the movie was without faults. About two-thirds into the movie, the film does take some questionable turns concerning the relationship between Jake and Amy (and this is the only time when the movie can be described as preachy). It almost went into the realm of Jake throwing away his promising basketball career, something that he had dreamed of since he was a kid. But by the end of the film, they had worked it out nicely so that he could still pursue his dream.
There are also some unresolved holes in the story. The most important one involves the relationship between Jonny and Andrea. It starts off alright, has a few nasty bumps but after those bumps, nothing is mentioned further. My only guess is that the movie was already running long and some things had to be cut. There were other holes that were tidied up a little too neat for my tastes (Jake’s parents for one), but in the end those weren’t very distracting.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 Widescreen at 1080p resolution. This film was actually made on a very small budget, only about a million dollars. They used the many locations of Oceanside in Southern California for most of the shots and it honestly came out quite good. Color is vibrant and the dark scenes don’t suffer from the usual detail loss. Everybody looks good and there are no major faults to be had.
The audio is presented in English DTS-HD 5.1 Surround Sound. This is a film where dialogue is the major focus. The dialogue is very clear and one should not have a problem with any of the voices in the film. The sound effects are few in number and don’t really expand the rear speakers any. The film’s sound isn’t spectacular but it isn’t meant to be. That is what the message is for. Subtitles are provided in English, English SDH and French.
- Commentary with Director Brian Baugh, Writer/Co-Producer Jim Britts and Producers Nicole Franco and Steve Foster : A fairly comprehensive chat with the makers of the film. They discuss their ideas and motivations and actually talk quite well for the duration of the movie despite their indication that it is their first time doing this sort of thing (commentary). An interesting note, but apparently a good number of scenes were improved at certain points. It makes me appreciate the actors all the more.
- Deleted Scenes 9:46: There are eight deleted scenes total here. The majority of the focus in these cut scenes is on the relationship between Chris and Mark Rivers (played by D. David Morin) who is in charge of the church. I guess they dropped the sub-plot due to time constraints.
- Gag Reel 5:58 : A decent length mix of mis-cues and forgotten lines. They also demonstrate how to completely ruin a perfectly good clutch.
- To Save a Life: Behind the Scenes 12:16: The standard behind the scenes featurette. Goes over many of the important scenes of the film and why the message was so important to send to students around the world. They also show how their local church got involved in the production. The movie was dedicated to Christiane Covington, the script supervisor who lost her life in 2009 due to a drowning accident in Hawaii.
- Music Videos 6:49: The two videos are Bounce by J-Rus and Sunset Cliffs by Paul Wright. The first one is an Italian rapper and the second one is a folk/pop singer of some sort. The music is forgettable but it is not terrible.
- Previews: Karate Kid, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants
To Save a Life is honestly the first Christian film I’ve watched that I can remember that didn’t try to beat you over the head with the Bible or preach some holier than thou attitude. It plays out like a giant after school special that primarily focuses on acceptance and teen suicide. It delivers a powerful message and provides us with the concept that even though we are all different, we should strive to treat others as equals.
The disc is fairly solid, with above average visuals and balanced dialog despite its relatively small budget. Interesting note, but Randy Wayne, the top billed star actually offered to do the film for free after initially turning it down. The extras are plentiful and provide most of what you would expect. I do recommend this film to any set of parents or friends who are having trouble with a depressed teen or the teen themselves. It is the kind of film that you watch once but hopefully that sticks with you for a lifetime.