Most filmmaking to date addressing the Great Divide between gays and the U.S. religious right has very much reflected its point of origin --delivering full moral condemnation from one side onto the other. "Save Me" is a welcome exception in that it effectively dramatizes the issues without caricaturing or pillorizing either party.

Most filmmaking to date addressing the Great Divide between gays and the U.S. religious right has very much reflected its point of origin –delivering full moral condemnation from one side onto the other. “Save Me,” the first feature from new gay-focused production company Mythgarden, is a welcome exception in that it effectively dramatizes the issues without caricaturing or pillorizing either party. Despite widescreen lensing, quietly involving feature has a telepic feel that might hobble theatrical prospects. But further fest travel should presage successful DVD and cable sales, while raising anticipation for Mythgarden’s future offerings.

We first meet Mark (Chad Allen) during a drug and casual sex binge that ends in a suicide attempt — not his first, apparently.

His conservative family won’t take him in anymore, and he has nowhere else to go, so he ends up placed (though he claims he’s OK with his orientation) at Genesis House, a Christian 12-step “recovery” facility “specializing in sexual brokenness.” It’s run by married couple Gayle (Judith Light) and Ted (Stephen Lang), the latter her second husband. A son Gayle had by her first husband, then tragically lost, proves key to why she takes a special motherly interest in the initially resentful, stubborn resident.

Mark does stick with the program, embracing Christ and even coming to think he can and should renounce his “lifestyle choice.” A stumbling block, however, comes in the form of fellow resident Scott (Robert Gant), with whom he fast develops a close friendship — while both struggle to ignore their equally strong romantic attraction.

There are no great surprises in seeing how Mark’s eventually conflicting relationships with Gayle and Scott play out, or in the subplots involving other troubled Genesis residents. (The major one centers on Robert Baker as protag’s virginal roommate Lester, a low-self-esteem case who comes to see the budding love between Mark and Scott as suggesting hope rather than sinfulness.)

But three scenarists, helmer Robert Cary and the solid cast all lift “Save Me” past potential cliche — or preachiness — by resisting easy melodrama in favor of styistic restraint and nonjudgmental empathy. Gayle may have a blind spot as big as the all-outdoors — using a simplistic faith-based program to keep her own buried parental guilt at bay — but pic refuses to teach her a politically correct “lesson” she wouldn’t realistically be able to hear anyway. Nor is Mark an especially sympathetic protagonist, as he eagerly swaps secular addictions for supposedly sacred ones.

Indeed, pic loses credibility only in departments where it might be a little too evenhandedly nice: Genesis House is a pretty mild, non-brimstone-and-hellfire version of such facilities, and its residents are a more youthful and attractive lot than you’d typically find thereabouts. (Even supposed fatso Lester would only need a few months’ exercise dedication to morph into a hunk.)

Speaking of realism, TV vet Gant (“Queer as Folk,” “Popular,” “Caroline in the City”) may offer Mark a rather too conveniently dreamboat-y “out” from Genesis, but his canny underplaying puts the conceit across. Telepic queen Light refuses to jerk tears in a vinegary perf, deftly supported by the reliable Lang.

Pic was shot in anamorphic 35mm, though shown at Sundance in an HD cam transfer due to time constraints on getting a finished film negative in time for fest. Production values are thoughtful, though in both dramatic approach and packaging there’s a conventional neutrality that doesn’t distance pic quite enough from TV terrain. New Mexico locations add some flavor.

Save Me

Production

A Mythgarden, Garbus Kroup Entertainment and Tetrahedron production. Produced by Christopher Racster, Herb Hamsher, Chad Allen, Judith Light. Executive producers, James Garbus, Robert Kroupa, Robert Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman. Directed by Robert Cary. Screenplay, Craig Chester, Alan Hines, Robert Desiderio.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Rodney Taylor; editor, Phillip Bartell; music, Jeff Cardoni; music supervisor, Debra Baum; production designer, Ray Kluga; set decorator, Alanna Levy; costume designer, Lahly Poore; sound editor (Dolby Digital), Patrick Giraud; assistant directors, James Currier, Thomas Buckley; casting, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Crowley, Kerry Barden, Jennifer Richiazzi, Angelique Midthunder. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Spectrum), Jan. 23, 2007. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Chad Allen, Robert Gant, Judith Light, Stephen Lang, Robert Baker, Greg Serrano, David Petruzzi, Arron Shiver, Colin Jones, William Dennis Hurley, Ross Kelly, Paul Scallan, Adam Taylor, Carmen Morales.

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