Just as representations of human sexuality on film are often unpleasantly twisted by the grotesqueries of the porn industry, so, too, are filmic representations of religious conversion homogenized by the faith-based entertainment industry. Case in point: Debutante director Brian Baugh’s “To Save a Life,” which hints at becoming a thoughtful portrait of a teen’s spiritual crisis, then abandons all narrative integrity to hit its church-mandated marks, which range from well-meaning to eyebrow-raising. Grassroots marketing via church youth groups could generate decent business, though “Fireproof” numbers seem far out of reach.
Film toplines Randy Wayne as Jake, a high school basketball star shaken by the sudden, in-school suicide of a childhood friend whom he had long since discarded in a quest to join the in-crowd and snag the local hot chick (Deja Kreutzberg). Haunted by guilt, he eventually winds up in the orbit of a charismatic youth group leader (Josh Weigel), who urges him to explore his spiritual side (the Bible is mentioned, but never actually seen or quoted), much to the dismay of his friends and girlfriend.
The pic’s depiction of high school social dynamics can lean toward the risible — a beer-pong sequence seems to have been copied shot-for-shot from an Asher Roth video — and the script contains more than its share of clunkers. Yet elements of Jake’s spiritual dilemma ring true, and in less compromising hands, an examination of the wedge that religious conversion drives into existing relationships could have yielded great insight. But the film’s invocations of faith’s knottier issues are defanged by its easy answers (teenage pregnancy? Just let the youth pastor handle it) and many supplemental dramas that swell the running time to a bloated two hours.
The missionary impulse is an essential element of Christian faith, so to fault a Christian film for proselytizing is ultimately a meaningless criticism. Nonetheless, “To Save a Life’s” agenda is proclaimed so loudly that it tramples all over the film’s quieter elements, and often seems designed less to steer viewers toward salvation than toward a very specific (and at times borderline cultish) type of suburban youth ministry — unsurprisingly, the film’s scripter is himself a youth group leader. This slant starts to ring a few alarm bells, especially as the pic sets up an opposition between an ineffectual, by-the-Book church pastor and the endlessly empathetic younger minister.
Pic is well constructed and production values are often of a surprisingly high quality, though a mawkish, perpetually swelling score makes the whole effort feel slightly cheap.