As far as proselytizing Christian films go, this one is better than most, even if it’s rather like an after-school special drawn out to inordinate length with far too many problems to address. But for approximately the first of its two hours, “To Save A Life” avoids mere sermonizing, and even in the second half it avoids espousing a simplistically fundamentalist doctrine in favor of a more tolerant, empathetic religious message. And it’s professionally made, with reasonably good direction from Brian Baugh, a decent physical production (with cinematography by C. Clifford Jones), and some solid performances.
The picture is essentially the story of Jake Taylor (Randy Wayne, surprisingly solid), the senior basketball star at his California high school and a real party animal. Unfortunately, he got his campus status as a freshman by ditching his long-time best friend Roger Dawson (Robert Bailey, Jr.)—who had even saved his life in sixth grade by pushing him out of the way of a speeding car, taking the hit himself and getting a game leg in the process—to run with the in crowd and win class hottie Amy Briggs (Deja Kreutzberg). Now, as their four years are running out and Jake plans to enroll at the University of Louisville to play ball, the despondent Roger commits suicide.
That sends Jake, who blames himself for abandoning his friend, into an emotional crisis that eventually takes him to a Chris Vaughn (Josh Weigel), a youth minister at a local church, for advice, even though he admits that he’s never been religious. What’s interesting in this is that the message that Chris espouses to his young charges is remarkably free of fire-and-brimstone theology, or even Scriptural citations. It has more in common with New Age counseling than anything else, and even its faith-based character is more assumed than articulated. Chris’ best-friend approach, in fact, is explicitly contrasted with that of the church’s senior pastor, who’s so out of touch that he doesn’t realize that his own son (Bubba Lewis) is a snarky, drug-using troublemaker with a mean streak.
That’s all unusual and intriguing in a picture like this, but scripter Jim Britts—a youth minister himself, which might explain why Chris is portrayed as the guy with all the answers—lays on the complications with a trowel. There’s teen pregnancy and all its attendant difficulties. There’s family dysfunction and divorce. There’s Jake’s befriending of Johnny Garcia (Sean Michael), another campus outcast, who he fears might be contemplating suicide, too. Each of these could serve as the centerpiece of the film in itself; stuffing them all into it is a surfeit of something other than riches.
But the weirdest plot thread certainly involves Jake’s decision to establish a lunch group on his campus that, though as depicted here is hardly extravagantly religious, is sufficiently a losers’ magnet to attract the derision of his old ultra-secular pals, including his teammates. It seems that the inclination to portray Christians in today’s America as some sort of persecuted minority is irresistible, however farfetched a notion that is. One also has to note that the depiction of students’ parties here seems based not on actual experience but attendance at too many bad high school comedies.
But despite these problems, and some secondary performances that are less than stellar—Kreutzberg in particular has an odor of the drama class about her—and a bathetic score (by Timothy Michael Wynn), and a perhaps inevitable tendency to offer easy answers to difficult problems (all provided by Britts stand-in Chris, of course), “To Save A Life” has some moments that seem genuine and real, most provided by Wayne, who’s onscreen nearly non-stop after the establishing prologue and is generally quite convincing.
The picture is, of course, essentially a sermon—and an overlong one at that, which grows more contrived as it goes on. But it has some good points to make, even if they might have been made better.