Being an expert on Christian movies, it only makes sense that I was contacted by an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation to assess whether it is appropriate for a public school to play To Save a Life for its students. Feeling a sense of civic duty, I immediately set about watching the movie and the short answer is no, it is definitely not appropriate. This is a movie that’s all about selling you on how cool you’ll be if you just believe in Jesus – the fact that any educators are trying to play this movie for public school students is disturbing.
The movie itself concerns a teenager named Jake (played by the wooden Randy Wayne), inexplicably the star of his high school’s basketball team and consequently the most popular kid at school. In a weird series of flashbacks at the start of the movie – and I mean “weird” in the sense that the movie keeps quickly flashing back and forth between scenes of the past and present-Jake staring forward with a concerned look on his face, as though the movie was afraid we might forget that present-Jake still exists even though we can’t see him – we find our boy in the 10th grade being asked to a party by some cute girl. Jake’s forced to tell his friend Roger that he’s leaving him. “Oh, I get it,” Roger sneers. “Things are gonna be different now.” It seems an odd conclusion to jump to after one missed date, but I guess the two did end up drifting apart until that one fateful day when Roger brings a gun to school! After firing a few shots at the ceiling, totally not going after the mass of frightened students who would be such easy targets (get your head in the game, Roger!), he then shoots himself while Jake looks on.
That’s some pretty traumatic stuff, and Jake understandably begins to wonder whether he bears some responsibility for Roger’s decision. Like a shark to blood, youth pastor Chris smells Jake’s vulnerability and introduces himself to Jake. “I’m not religious,” Jake says, attempting to ward the man away but unwittingly making himself more attractive for Chris’ nefarious purposes. “Neither am I,” Chris assures. Later that night, after a night of beer pong leaves Jake unable to drive, he calls Chris for assistance and subsequently agrees to go to church because Chris guilts him into it.
Poof! Suddenly, Jake is a Christian – a fact which means his beer ponging days are over. Our hero and his girlfriend get into an argument about his sober ways, she telling him that she fell in love with the man who could best any high-schooler at guzzling beer, not whatever he’s turned into. Actually, at this point, Jake isn’t so sure about where his allegiances lie. When asked whether he’s a Christian, he objects: “No! I’m just checking it out!” She tells Jake that she doesn’t know him any more, says “I don’t want you to rush into this”, and worries that he’ll turn into an abusive (?) person like her father, who also professed to be a Christian. “I’m not your dad,” Jake consoles.
In any case, he’s put off by a lot of the kids at church who are just fakers. For instance, the head pastor’s son smokes pot behind the school, lashing out when Jake questions the morality of this action: “I believe what I believe.” Oh man, beliefs that contradict the Bible (or Jake’s interpretation of it)? That kid’s got a one-way ticket to fire and brimstone coming his way. To show that he himself is not a faker, Jake decides to–get this–to save a life by forcing a friendship with a loser who nobody likes. So Jake and this total nerd Johnny start hanging out, and here’s where all this lame recap kind of pays off. Jake asks Johnny if he’s ever thought about doing what Roger did, to which Johnny emphatically responds: “I’m not Roger, alright?”
Thinking about this now, it reminds me of another Christian film (Last Ounce of Courage) where the movie’s message is obliviously undercut with a throw-away gag. There’s something of a similar issue here. Jake’s response to anybody whose life differs from what he believes is the straight-and-narrow Christian path is to start evangelizing to them, inviting them into his culty church group lunches at school and picking up the mantle from Chris of guilting people in church attendance. Yet he doesn’t consider that being a non-Christian isn’t a failing, and that people who aren’t Christians aren’t necessarily liable to walk into the school and commit suicide in front of a crowd of their peers. Just as making a Christian doesn’t make him a bad guy like his girlfriend’s father, being a non-Christian doesn’t automatically make Johnny a lesser person either.
Continuing with the odd obliviousness to what seem like intentional parallels, it turns out that Jake’s girlfriend is pregnant. They had sex before he became a Christian (obviously), and now she’s considering an abortion. In fact, we see her approaching a building with those ominous words written above the door: “Women’s Family Health”. Jake, luckily, meets her before she walks inside and tries to talk her out of the procedure. “I don’t want you to rush into this,” he says, echoing the words she used when telling him to take a step back from his religious addiction. Yet for Jake, the decision was never questioned beyond a disgust with being associated with people he felt were insufficiently Christian – or at least if it was, we weren’t privy to that mental wrestling. Yet the hypocrisy of Jake’s just knowing that he’s made the right decision while encouraging his girlfriend to take some time to think about her actions is never mentioned. But then again, maybe it’s not such a big deal because we should all just admit that Jake is a perfect person.
Chris, defending Jake’s honor to the head pastor (who heard about the pregnancy and now wants to excommunicate our hero for the transgression), yells: “Jake Taylor should be telling us what it means to follow God!” Because Jake is so amazing, don’t ya know. He’s an incredible basketball player, an incredibly popular kid at school, a saint who befriends dorks out of the goodness of his heart and definitely not for personal glory, and on top of this he’s the best Christian of them all. Hallelujah, let’s all bow down and worship Jake. Before the movie’s over, Jake also gets to single-handedly detective down the identity of a student who called in a bomb threat at the school and framed Johnny, which means that Jake totally gets to save the day. AND on top of that, to prove how good of a Christian he is, Jake agrees to sit with the bomb-threat guy while waiting for the police to come book him.
“Why are you doing this?” the hardened criminal says with stars in his eyes, and it’s clear that what he means is “why are you the greatest person to ever live and how lucky am I to bask in your presence.”
I don’t know what message a public high school could be trying to send by playing To Save a Life for its students aside from the assurances by Chris that following Jesus is absolutely worth it if you just commit yourself to him. Maybe if you follow Jesus good enough, you can become some kind of messianic figure like Jake. In the end, in spite of its title To Save a Life is less about the protagonist’s attempts to save people (in fact, he writes down 3 names of unpopular people to befriend and then the other two are never mentioned again), but instead about glorifying him as a role model. Beyond the very broad strokes of typical teenage Christian philosophy (“God isn’t some little genie or vending machine!”), I’m not really sure that the movie has a clear idea of what it’s supposed to be accomplishing.