"I hope that Save Me can be a part of an ongoing discussion
about fundamentalism, homosexuality and the possibility
of discovering one's own spiritual truth
through the search to reconcile the two."
- director Robert Cary
As a hot day in early July of 2001 approached, my nerves mounted more than they ever had before. I was about to meet my brother and father alone, at each of their homes, for a private conversation: They were the last two people I needed to come out to, and the two I was most scared of telling. I knew I was gay my entire life, but fear had a remarkable way of keeping me quiet--fear of rejection from friends and family, the single most horrifying thought any gay person thinks about.
When the day was over, I could finally breathe--the news was no big deal to them. No more fear, no more hiding, no more lying. My father even told me that he had recently started to compose a letter to me in the event he passed away before I shared the news; in it, he wrote that he suspected I was gay, and that it was okay.
I'm one of the lucky ones. Not everyone is nearly fortunate enough to have that kind of love and acceptance, and to grow up in a large metropolitan area where the gay community is large, welcoming and active. And that's why watching Save Me was such an emotional experience--the characters in this beautifully moving film face an uphill battle for love and acceptance (from themselves and others), something no one should ever have to go through.
Meet Mark (Chad Allen), a young gay man on the verge of self-destruction. He parties hard, and after an overdose sends him to the hospital, his older brother decides to check him into Genesis House. Nestled in a secluded patch of New Mexico desert, the Christian retreat is run by couple Gayle (Judith Light) and Ted (Stephen Lang). The program is designed to get troubled men on the road to recovery--and specializes in curing them of their "sexual brokenness".
Initially hesitant and not comfortable with so many rules, Mark wants to bolt. But once he notices progress in overcoming his addictions, he buys into the process ("I think there's something to this place..."). One of the steps is admitting this mantra: "We admit we are powerless over our homosexuality and our lives are unmanageable...come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity." Patients can leave whenever they want, but "graduate" after they reach Level 5 status. "I don't change people," says Gayle. "I try to show them how to get closer to Jesus Christ and let them make their own way."
Joining Mark on the journey is a handful of other men at various stages in the process: Bill (William Dennis Hurley) is the most advanced, maintaining a relationship with a "cured" woman; Jude (Arron Shiver) strums his guitar and dreads some of the rituals; Lester (Robert Baker) questions his place in the ranch and the gay community; and Scott (Robert Gant), a five-month resident, frequently leaves to visit his ailing father.
As the film progresses, we learn more about the residents--who each get solo "confession" scenes that shed light on their thoughts and fears--and about Gail, whose son died at a young age. She sees herself as a protector, maintaining a watchful eye on the men--and quickly develops a special connection with Mark. But she soon becomes troubled by his growing bond with Scott, and as a dance function with a sister program approaches, events will change all of their lives.
Directed by Robert Cary off a screenplay by actor Robert Desiderio and a story from Craig Chester and Alan Hines, Save Me is a powerful piece of filmmaking. On paper, this could easily have been a one-sided story that played to the passions of its built-in audience. That the cast and crew have constructed a complex, layered story that treats all of its characters and viewpoints with respect is amazing. Trust me--I wanted to loathe Gayle and Ted, but it's a testament to the writers (and Light's performance in particular) that they come across as genuinely loving people--and you actually begin to understand their mission even if you don't agree with it (which, in a way, is even ore frightening than a parody would have been).
The three leads (who all served as producers) turn in powerful performances. Allen doesn't take the easy way out and chew on the drug addiction bait to show off his acting chops. His character's conflict is believably brought to the surface--you understand the loyalty he feels to both himself and Gayle, and you sense his struggle in every word, glance and action. It's not an easy space for an actor (or a film) to navigate--many would succumb to one of two easily assessable extremes--and Allen soars.
Equally moving is Gant, who has a few unforgettable scenes that will stay with you long afterward--including heartbreaking exchanges with his father and Gayle, two of my favorite moments of the film. Gant's character is probably more relatable to most gay men, and his performance feels real and honest. He has some powerful (and sometimes painful) lines--including his therapy session, a sad exercise in selflessness: "Maybe my father was right. Maybe what I thought was his condemnation was a deeper love. Being attracted to men doesn't have to be part of who I am because it's not in the Lord's image."
Even the actors in smaller roles get a chance to shine (Lester has some great moments), and the script--which also has a few well-placed moments of humor--does a fantastic job of conveying a wide range of hopes, fears and stories. It's a window on real life: These are men of varying ages, backgrounds and experiences, and you get a real sense of how they all arrived to this crossroad.
As for Light? The fact that she makes Gayle sympathetic is nothing short of stunning. For Gayle, being gay equates to drinking, doing drugs and having sex, an empty life that she wants to rescue her residents from--even the ones who don't exhibit that behavior (it's not hard to see how those young men are made to loathe themselves). In the film, Genesis House does good work, and many of its residents need saving from something--just not their sexuality. Save Me helps you understand how these men get caught between two painful choices.
The film isn't flashy; remove a few scenes, and some might categorize it as a Lifetime Movie of the Week. But I've seen enough low-budget flashy films geared toward gay audiences, and I'll take this one every time. And I bet plenty of viewers who might write this film off before even seeing it would be surprised at its heart. Save Me not only renews my faith in gay-themed movies, but in responsible, intelligent and emotionally moving filmmaking of any kind.
Note: The film is packaged and sold in two different box covers--the "theatrical" cover is the one some people may find slightly controversial (I think it's a powerful image that reflects the movie perfectly) and a safer "alternative" cover.
The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is decent. While sharp, the colors are dull and some of the scenes are washed out, while some have tints to them (a cold green pops up a few times, which seems intentional). Some of the darker scenes don't have enough detail and the right contrast, but overall it's a fine effort that doesn't detract from the film.
The 2.0 track is a little more disappointing. While you won't have much of a problem, a few scenes have an isolated, almost "echo-like" sound to the dialogue (it sometimes sounds "separate" from the image). A few other scenes also aren't crisp and clear enough, and you may have to concentrate to hear some of the lower-volume exchanges. Nothing major, just a few noticeable moments of minor below-average quality.
Leading the way are three short interviews (10:36) with director Robert Cary and actors Chad Allen and Judith Light. All provide meaningful insights, which make me wish we got to spend more time with them. "The challenge of anything that deals with this subject matter is to try to walk a line between what could be melodramatic and exploitative, and what could end up feeling like you're pulling punches. So you have to both go there and ring the bell, but not feel like you're sounding a false alarm," says Cary, who later shares in his short yet interesting text-based director's note: "I felt that the challenge in telling this story would be to resist the temptation to judge Judith's character--indeed, to judge any of the people who enter and work at this ministry--and to understand that the motives and mechanics of this movement cannot be reduced to generalities."
Adds a passionate Allen in the interviews: "I'm okay if you walk away from this film and absolutely believe in your heart, as I believe Gayle does: 'I have a relationship with God and I believe that this is what God is telling me. But...I recognize that you may have found God, too, and I'm going to choose to respect you no matter what the answers you've come up with.'"
Light notes that Gayle's position in life is not her own: "That has been a very interesting process for me to go through...to find what the goodness in her heart is, and the strength of her need to fix something that she knows in her heart was not the way that Christ would have wanted her to deal with her son."
Also included are two short deleted scenes (in lower quality video), both which would have fit fine in the film; a text-based resources section that covers what the Bible does (and does not) say about homosexuality; and trailers for other First Run titles.
One of the more moving films I have seen in recent years, Save Me renews my faith in thought-provoking, intelligent and responsible filmmaking--and not just for movies with a built-in gay audience. The story of a man trying to recover from addictions at a Christian retreat that also wants to "cure" him of his homosexuality is surprisingly respectful to all of its characters' viewpoints--and never takes the easy way out for the sake of cheap thrills. Led by unforgettable performances from its three leads, it's a complex work that can help everyone better understand a painful struggle. Highly Recommended.