Two things really let me down when we watched an opening day showing of To Save a Life. The first was that the song by The Fray that I thought had inspired the name of the film was nowhere to be heard. Much as I love the song, I got over that quickly enough. The other was that we were the only two people in the theater. Since it was a 2:00 matinee on a weekday, I wasn’t expecting a full house, but come on! At any rate, it was kind of fun to be able to put our feet up and talk as loud as we wanted.
Other than that, I was not only pleasantly surprised, I was sincerely moved by this latest “Christian” movie. With the prevailing expectation of films with a faith-inspired message and motivation being “oh great, more cheese,” I was not looking for much in the way of production value. (I suppose I’m still jaded after all these years from paying full price to see Left Behind.) Our community group is discussing it after they view it together on Sunday night, and we will be in the Five O’Clock Service at church when they see it, but will join them afterward. So here we found ourselves at this most recent mashup of Hollywood and heaven.
The story centers on Jake Taylor, senior at an affluent Southern California high school, a popular jock with a basketball scholarship and attractive girlfriend Amy, whose world is shaken when Roger, a friend from childhood, commits suicide in the hallway at school. Through the influence of a high school youth pastor, Jake begins to see that life has a greater purpose, and we see his life begin to transform.
Before I go any further, let me skip to my bottom line recommendations. Note that this is purely my own opinion and nothing more, albeit as a youth leader for the better part of two decades. Ultimately parents and student ministry leaders must make their own informed decisions, and I am glad to offer my $0.02.
I can count on one hand the number of 6th graders I’ve met in 10 years of living and ministering in Johnson County that were developmentally ready to view a film like this. This is assuredly not High School Musical. Many 7th graders are beginning to wrestle with or at least be exposed to some of the issues raised. If a parent chooses to see this movie with their middle school child, I suggest grabbing an early show to allow time afterward to begin to process while the experience is fresh. For reasons I detail below, you might even want to see it first before you decide to take your child. If you do take younger teens, I would recommend focusing your conversation on the implied relationship between Jake and his (former) friend Roger during their middle school years. What kind of friend was Roger? What about Jake? If some of the more grown-up themes resonate, then by all means talk about them, but don’t force anything and find yourself having to explain things they didn’t already know about.
For high school students, I would also recommend for parents to see this film with your child. Older students will also want to consider inviting friends or seeing the film with a group of friends from church. Middle adolescents (ages 13-14+, i.e. 8th grade and up) are definitely dealing with the issues seen in the movie; even church kids will struggle with many of them and definitely know friends who do. Try to guide their conversations toward what actions they can take to reach out to the needs and hurt of kids they may or may not know, or even notice. More on that below.
Spoiler Alerts from here on out… The characters, Jake and others, experience the milieu of adolescent struggles. From overt references to alcohol and drug abuse, sexuality, teen pregnancy, abortion, cutting, family struggles, divorce, adultery, and the friend’s suicide, to intra- and interpersonal concerns such as guilt, grief, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, despair, race relations, and the social caste/label system so prevalent in the high school world, it’s pretty much all there. As far as I can tell, and from reading the user reviews on IMDB, the writing is quite faithful to the experiences of teenagers today.
For all the mature themes addressed, it is still a thoroughly PG-13 film. The language is a mild PG on par with prime time TV; “hell” and “damn” are the strongest words used. Premarital sex is referenced, the consequences of it are integral to the story, and Jake’s girlfriend wears some rather revealing outfits, but all in all there is no gratuitous sexuality. Alcohol use by teens (including beer pong) is prevalent in Jake’s friends’ party scene, and some characters are labeled as “potheads,” but there is an interesting lack of cigarette use. Apart from the suicide that catalyzes Jake’s exploration of faith, and a brief scene of cutting the only other onscreen violence is a quick fistfight.
There is very little comic relief, and it could have been pretty depressing if not for the hope of strength through a relationship with Christ. Jake interrupts a youth group meeting with strong language and asks bluntly, “What’s the point of all this if you’re not going to let this change you?” This challenges the group to a revival/outreach effort that begins to break down some of the social barriers so pervasive in their school. This left me with a sense of hope! The promotional campaign (via www.tosavealifemovie.com) brings the appeal, “Can a movie change the world? No, but it can move the people who see it to change the world.” I truly hope that every high school student will see this movie and take a hard look at life.
I was also struck by how Jake took his steps toward the Cross in the context of a faith community. When I was in high school, the primary process of becoming integrated into a church environment was Believe, Behave, Belong. That is, accept Christ first, probably through some attractional event, begin to conform your life to the standards of Scripture, and only then you find a place at church. Today a wise youth leader operates in exactly the reverse order, and this is well portrayed in To Save a Life. Jake first found that he felt a sense of belonging at the youth group (augmented by the trust the youth pastor built with him), began to evaluate the trajectory of his life in light of the truth that was penetrating his heart, and ultimately made his commitment of faith. (If I ever move to California, I will be baptized yet again, just to do it in the ocean.)
Where the rubber met the road, and where the film really won me over, was that Jake didn’t instantly become some practically perfect, perpetually happy, shiny saint. He actually hits rock bottom, with multiple crises hitting all at once, in the weeks after his conversion. It is only then that he realizes that he cannot do it in his own strength. What a great message for Christian and non-Christian kids alike to hear!
See this movie, hopefully in its opening weekend. See it again with your kids. Tell your friends. Most of all, allow it to inspire deep conversation and genuine change in the context of community.