To Save a Life begins with one that wasn't.
Roger Dawson walks into school, pulls out a handgun, points it at his head and pulls the trigger. His life is forever lost.
"He looked so evil," a girl says later. "I thought I was going to die."
"Had you ever seen him before?" her friend asks. The first girl shakes her head.
Few people had. When Roger was 11, he yanked his best friend away from an oncoming car, getting hit himself in the process. The crash left him with a limp and a stunted future: Unable to keep up with the cool kids, Roger slipped further behind, until he was nothing more than that quiet, sad kid with the bum leg—a target of mockery and derision.
Had you ever seen him before?
Jake had. Jake, the high school basketball star, the beer pong champion, the coolest cat on the quad, had seen him before. It was he who Roger saved from that speeding car, allowing him to pursue basketball, beer pong and popularity. And as he pursued basketball, beer pong and popularity, he gradually stopped being Roger's friend.
Jake was there when Roger killed himself. And now Jake can't help but feel, somehow, responsible.
"You got to let it go, OK?" Jake's girlfriend, Amy, tells him. "It's not your fault."
"Then whose fault is it?" Jake wonders.
Suicide. Sex. Teen pregnancy. Divorce. Drugs. Cutting. Hypocrisy.
Those aren't the typical things we put at the top of our "Positive Elements" section. And To Save a Life isn't your typical Christian film. It deals with a host of weighty issues—perhaps too many.
But here's the key: It deals with them when some films—including some Christian ones—would rather make light of the topics or turn tail and run.
We're asked to grapple with this daunting laundry list of problems through the eyes of Jake—a likable bloke who's finally beginning to wonder whether there's more to life than just basketball, beer pong and popularity. Through the gentle guidance of a Christian youth pastor, Jake tries to come to grips with Roger's suicide. Maybe it wasn't his fault that Roger killed himself, he concludes. But he might've still prevented it, had he taken the time.
It's the beginning of a life transformed. Jake stops drinking and starts going to church. He takes Jonny—a shy, hurting student—under his wing. When girlfriend Amy asks Jake to choose between her and his new, church-filled life, he breaks up with her—only to rally to her side when she admits she's pregnant with their baby.
To Save a Life provides Jake with a handful of heroes to help him on his journey. There's Andrea, the goodhearted girl who helps usher him into the frightening world of Tuesday-night youth group. There's Chris, the hip youth pastor who acknowledges that he, too, let Roger down. Even Jonny shows courage by stepping out of his world and into Jake's youth group—eventually risking what to him feels like everything to ask Andrea out.
While the film ends happily enough, it dares to do so with some unanswered questions: Does Jake reconcile with his cheating father? Will Jake and Amy get married? Will Jonny and Andrea go on another date after he seriously blows their first one? We don't know. But the movie tells us that whatever befalls these folks, they won't have to go it alone.
Written by youth pastor Jim Britts of New Song Community Church in Oceanside, Calif., To Save a Life has an unabashedly Christian point of view. It's Chris who first makes a point of talking about faith with Jake by way of a plug-and-play devotional, then by invitations to youth group and one-on-one conversations. Before long, Jake's getting baptized in the Pacific Ocean.
Lots of Christian films feature the same general storyline. But To Save a Life zags where many of its peers zig. Rather than the baptism being the story's happy ending, it marks the beginning of Jake's real problems: His father's caught cheating on Jake's mom, leading to divorce proceedings. Amy tells Jake she's pregnant and plans on aborting the baby. Someone else finds out about it and posts hurtful messages all over school.
Wasn't Christianity supposed to make life better?
"Look, God didn't do this to you," Chris tells Jake.
"But He didn't stop it," Jake retorts.
Jake guts it out, though. He decides to talk to Amy again, making sure she knows that if she decides to keep their child, she won't be doing it alone: He'll stick with her—even though it could mean giving up his treasured basketball scholarship to Louisville. "God, please," he prays. "Just give me the strength to do what's right."
That feels pretty real to me. But it's not just real, it's responsible. To Save a Life doesn't show dirt to get dirty, it shows it so you'll notice the paper towel that can clean it up.
Thanks to Jake's influence, Amy doesn't abort their baby.
And we're made to understand that while it might be real, it's also wrong for the pastor's son, Danny, to spread rumors and marijuana with equal aplomb. Chris' youth group, it's suggested, is loaded with hypocritical, disinterested kids. But we also see them care for one another. And Chris admits that he botched his own chance to save Roger. But we see from his interactions with Jake that he's not about to do it again.
When the church's senior pastor comes close to kicking Jake out for getting a girl pregnant, Chris comes to the boy's defense. "You judge this kid but you haven't bothered to get to know him," Chris tells the pastor. "Jake Taylor should be teaching us what it means to follow God."
And that's what this movie struggles to do, too—teach us what it means to follow God.
We see Amy and Jake kiss several times, and Amy leads Jake into a spare bedroom at a party to have sex. She pulls off his shirt and the two flop down an the bed before the camera looks away. We see Amy finish getting dressed later. And Jake says, "Let's do it again. You know you want to."
Skimpy dresses and a bit of sensual dancing get screen time during the party, too.
When Amy and Jake break up, Amy rebounds with a hulking lug of a student named Doug. "Guess who's banging Amy tonight, buddy?" Doug taunts. Then, when Doug and Amy break up themselves, Doug repeatedly calls her a "slut."
High school students make references to "hot" mothers. Jonny takes Andrea out for a first date and tries to kiss her—a clumsy advance that Andrea rejects.
We learn that Jake's father has been cheating.
Suicide is a ticklish subject to deal with onscreen. That singular act, more than any other violent act, has been proven to inspire copycats. As such, any book, song, game, television program or movie that deals with suicide—no matter how responsibly—runs a bit of a risk. News outlets rarely cover suicides for this very reason.
But suicide marks the very core of To Save a Life. So I'll take a bit of time here to describe exactly how: Roger's death, while shocking, isn't gory or graphic, nor is it glamorized. He fires a few shots into the school's walls before pointing the gun at himself, with the camera zooming in on Jake's face as Roger pulls the trigger. We then watch as pandemonium breaks out. As his mother cries at the funeral. As Jake tears himself up for what he should've done.
Jonny also is suicidal, though he doesn't admit it until the very end. He has developed a habit of cutting himself, slicing the skin on his wrist to try to somehow deal with his internal pain. We see him with a razor, we see the bloody marks, and we see the scars he's developed. Jonny ultimately empties a bottle of pills on a car seat, intending to finish himself off. (He does not.)
Someone calls in a bomb threat to the school. A car hits Roger (we don't see the impact), leaving him writhing in pain. Jake and Doug get into a couple of fistfights, and Jake angrily hurls objects around at times.
Crude or Profane Language
"There are probably no other screenwriters that pray over every curse word [they write], as I did," Jim Britts told Plugged In. "I don't cuss at all, and it's not cool in our ministry. There are just a couple times where we needed to put some B-rated curse words in there—we didn't go to the big ones—so it would be real."
Those words include about two uses of "a‑‑," five uses of "h‑‑‑" and one "d‑‑mit."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Denny, the pastor's kid, smokes marijuana with some of his friends outside school. We see teens exchange a bag of it during youth group. "Nothing about smoking weed in the Bible," Denny tells a disapproving Jake. Amy later detects pot's distinctive scent on Jake's clothes and expresses her displeasure.
Jake and Amy share champagne while sitting in the back of Jake's pickup. And there's lots of drinking going on during the party scenes—keggers, if you will—complete with inebriated teens.
(Britts says he felt it was important for the party scenes to feel authentic—to show that there's a reason why teens gravitate to them. But he admits they were hard for him to have filmed. "Two or three times in between takes I had to say, 'I have to remind you that this life leads to sorrow,' because they were looking like they were having a lot of fun," he admits. "It was hard for me as a youth pastor to watch, even though I knew they were acting.")
Other Negative Elements
At Chris' request, youth group kids guzzle soda filtered through dirty socks. And Chris jokes with the group about who would "French kiss a dog" for money. Teens skip school. And somebody throws up (offscreen).
When Jim Britts first wrote the screenplay for To Save a Life, he envisioned getting a college filmmaker to direct his own youth group kids. But when Brian Baugh, a Hollywood cinematographer who had worked on An American Carol and The Ultimate Gift, read the script and asked if he could direct, the project gained momentum. The next thing Britts knew, professional actors were filling the major roles and Samuel Goldwyn Films had agreed to distribute it—to theaters.
The final product is polished, professional and one of the best Christian films I've seen. Is it perfect? Will Oscar coming calling? No. And no. The Christian film industry still has a ways to go before it can tangle with Hollywood's best. And, more significantly, Christian audiences may be legitimately troubled by some of this film's grittier aspects: The language. The drinking. The dope smoking. The cutting. The suicide. And the scene that shows the lead-up to teen sex.
Britts understands those concerns.
"We never really set out to make a Christian film," he says. "We said we wanted to make a film for teenagers that would never set foot in a church but would go to the movies—something that would reach them. … We wanted to make a movie that really mattered, and that empowered students to be able to reach out to their friends."
I'm inclined to let Mr. Britts have the last word in this case. Partly because after watching his movie, I wanted to watch it again. And I wanted to show it to my 16-year-old daughter—because it actively applies biblical principles to serious subjects teens struggle with every day. But it's not just because she should see this movie. It's because she'd love to see it, too.
Read "Saving Lives Is 'Your Job,'" Plugged In's interview with filmmakers Jim Britts and Brian Baugh.