Over the past couple of years, I have frequently written and spoken about the potential of Sherwood Pictures to be a influential model for the future of Christian filmmaking. This influence will come not only through their films, but in the ways in which other communities of faith their production strategies. The first church to respond to the call has been New Song Community Church in Oceanside, CA, whose $500,000 production, To Save a Life, earned $3.7 million at box offices earlier this year and just released on DVD last week where it will no doubt earn tens of millions more.
Put quite simply, To Save a Life is the best Christian film I have ever seen, and by Christian films, I mean films produced by churches or specifically Christian production studios intent on spreading a gospel message. My definition of Christian films takes into account Terry Lindvall’s definition but expands it to include theatrically-released films as well (his research into the origins of the Christian film industry only considered non-theatrical films). Changes in technology, communication, production, exhibition, and distribution have necessitated a broadening of this definition, because, unlike decades ago, church-based productions enjoying wide theatrical releases is now a reality. But forget just Christian films, To Save a Life is one of the better inspirational/teen/high school films I have seen in recent years as well. In this case, the faith of its characters actually enhances the narrative rather than detracting from it.
To Save a Life focuses on Jake Taylor (Randy Wayne), a star high school basketball player with a bright future ahead of him (he has a scholarship to play at the University of Louisville). Jake’s life is turned upside down when a former childhood friend, Roger (Robert Bailey Jr.), commits suicide in front of him in the hallway at school. This tragedy sends Jake on an exploration for meaning and answers for why Roger had become so alienated, a reality for which he is primarily responsible. Unsatisfied with his life, his relationship with girlfriend Amy (Deja Kreutzberg), and his friendships, particularly with friend Doug (Steven Crowder), Jake turns to a local church after its youth minister, Chris Vaughn (Joshua Weigel), reaches out to him. Together, they see the realities of their respective environments, the school and the church, that contributed to Roger’s feelings of loneliness and depression and often turn religious seekers like Jake (and, at one time Roger) away from the church. Unlike many Christian films, Jake’s life does not automatically improve as soon as he sets foot in the church: in fact, it gets worse at times. Jake still has a host of challenges and consequences to face from decisions that he has made in the past. Thankfully, in youth pastor Chris, he has a supporter who truly listens to him and stands by him no matter what.
Though they were inspired by Sherwood Baptist Church/Sherwood Pictures, New Song Community Church/New Song Pictures has created a production unlike anything their predecessors have turned out thus far. In To Save A Life, New Song Pictures provides a film that seeks out a more youthful audience, one that the church actively targets to ensure its current and future livelihood. Watching New Song’s first film instantaneously makes Sherwood Pictures’ films feel terribly old school…and not in a good way. One could make the case that Facing the Giants is targeted to a younger audience, but its focus is still on the adult Grant Taylor and the difficulties that he faces, rather than his players. Moreover, New Song isn’t afraid to look at the realities of everyday life either as their film depicts teens and adults drinking, teens smoking weed, cursing, and teen pregnancy. That they so revel in such realities makes the need for a substantive message from the church all the more important.
Perhaps unwillingly, To Save a Life presents an alternative way of participating in a community of faith that certainly flies in the face of more conservative congregations like Sherwood, for example. We can think of two different ways in which individuals can become part of a community of faith. Perhaps the more traditional one with which many of us are familiar is the believing/behaving/belonging paradigm in which the new member only fully belongs after (s)he believes and behaves appropriately. On the other hand, the far more risky, yet Christ-like, paradigm is to belong/behave/believe whereby a new member is invited to belong to a community and this belonging affects their behavior which then shapes and makes real their belief. To Save a Life is a vision of the latter as Jake only fully believes in what the church has to offer after his belonging in the community has shaped his behavior, a behavior which not only changes his life but the lives of those around him as well.
Furthermore, the church in To Save a Life is one that is full of problems and troubled members…just like most churches in the real world. It is a place that simultaneously promises and needs transformation. Not surprisingly, the church in To Save a Life is New Song itself, and the actions and dialogue of the youth minister in the film embody the differences between New Song Community Church and Sherwood Baptist Church. Some of Chris’ comments to Jake would never be found in many Christian productions thus far. When the two first meet, Jake tells him, “I’m not really religious,” to which Chris responds, “I’m not either.” As the film progresses, Jake tells Chris, “I don’t want to just be another Christian,” and Chris responds, “Good, I don’t want you to.” As such, this is a hip, spiritual-but-not-religious version of Christianity that is fraught with its own theological shortcomings as well.
Though this is something of a spoiler, I feel that I should mention it here. I am thankful that the film takes a comparatively progressive stance on teen pregnancy. Juno aside, most films that involve teen pregnancy dwell too much in the abortion/birth dichotomy, as if adoption is not a viable option for teens or one that Christians should encourage. A recent episode of Friday Night Lights, in my opinion, fumbled an opportunity to take a more direct approach at this option. Though adoption comes up far too late in To Save a Life, it is still a welcomed plot point that proves to be a blessing for both the adopting and birth parents.
Like every film, To Save a Life has its share of problems, namely with stereotypical, two-dimensional characters and some occasional flat acting. These minor shortcomings aside, To Save a Life is an absolute breath of fresh air in a genre that desperately needed it. That I have been immersed in such awful, low-budget Christian films might be skewing this review, but even still, this is a good film that certainly didn’t deserve the scorn heaped on it by mainstream critics whose reviews evidence pre-conceived assumptions rather than honest engagements with the film.
To Save a Life is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements involving teen suicide, teen drinking, some drug content, disturbing images and sexuality and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.