It seems cruel to pick on "To Save a Life" when it means so well. A tale of grief, God, and goodbyes, the Christian-rooted picture is an expectedly amateur affair, overacted and cringingly staged. Yet, at the core of this recruitment video is a rather sincere offering of tolerance and a plea for social unity -- gamely addressing critical issues facing teens today. It's a film worth talking about, but hardly worth seeing, as director Brian Baugh clumsily takes real world horrors and glazes them with hard-sell religious reassurance.
Jake Taylor (Randy Wayne, hardly passing for 17 years of age) is a star basketball player at his high school, blessed with a popular girlfriend (Deja Kreutzberg, hardly passing for 17 years of age) and the adulation of his classmates. When Roger Dawson (Robert Bailey Jr.), a school outcast, takes his own life in the hallway, the act shatters Jake, who once had a close friendship with the troubled boy before he shunned him for popularity. Unable to deal with his guilt and pain, Jake is talked into attending a youth group meeting by Pastor Chris (Joshua Weigel), who wants to introduce the teen to the word of God as a way of dealing with his despair. Jake, accepting Jesus into his life, turns his back on his old friends, hoping to build social bridges at school by mingling with exceptionally troubled classmates.
Suicide is such a vast topic for cinematic discussion, and one that's barely touched upon these days. It's a useless hesitation toward desperate matters, and I applaud Baugh and writer Jim Britts for even attempting to address a very real and heartbreaking response to life's challenges and cruelties. Younger audiences should experience and process such screen severity as a way of confronting a complicated topic, and, to his credit, Baugh treats the act with the compassion it requires, while also reinforcing the horrific finality. I just wish the topic was addressed in a more sophisticated motion picture.
"To Save a Life" is a Christian recruitment tool that offers a heap of melodrama and only one answer: God. It's not a polished picture, scripted to appeal to spiritual sensibilities over dramatic ones. The film mercilessly layers on the trouble for Jake, who vaguely deals with his problems through the miracle of faith. One would think suicide is enough for a single movie, but Britts gets grabby, confronting our hero with parental divorce, binge drinking, abortion, cutting, drug abuse, and a high school bomb threat to make sure he's persecuted to the fullest. "To Save a Life" elects for a cartoon route to address disturbing topics, and the film's kitten play is frustrating to behold. Britts and Baugh spend more time attempting to lure in the faithless than they do creating plausible, searing trials for Jake, making his trail of tears just absurd at times.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation is rather effective, with a relaxed color palette that never bleeds, offering a lovely sense of mood for the characters and the locations. Black levels are study and supportive, while skintones are natural and communicative. The DVD offers more life in daylight sequences, which show off a pleasant push of colors and clarity, but it's a capable visual experience all around.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix holds to the film's interior moments well, with a nice read on silences and darker dramatic standoffs. Dialogue registers well, nudged frontal to keep the verbal heat in play. Soundtrack cuts have a certain boomy position, allowing for low-end activity, while scoring cues float around the surrounds, buttressing the listening event.
English, English SDH, and French subtitles are offered.
The feature-length commentary with director Brian Baugh, writer Jim Britts, and producers Nicole Franco and Steve Foster is a game of pointing out random tidbits on the screen, with Franco reminding the guys about the need to be vocal during the track. Nothing stunning is revealed here, only minor comments on the action, calling out production design choices, performances, and low-budget filmmaking accomplishments. There's not a whole lot offered from the group that illuminates, but, for fans, the talk here is friendly and wholly non-confrontational.
"Deleted Scenes" (9:47) actually provide some critical moments of useful storytelling -- needed bits of characterization (especially with Pastor Chris) that help to flesh out the picture. Most of these scenes should not have been cut.
"Gag Reel" (5:58) is one odd collection of mix-em-ups, set to a sound-alike version of Yello's "Oh Yeah." After the pure darkness of the film, this goofballery seems inappropriate.
"'To Save a Life:' Behind the Scenes" (12:16) seeks to provide an overview of the film's production and moral goals, showcasing some BTS footage, along with cast and crew interviews. I always enjoy on-set footage (a great peek into ADR recording is included too), but the slant here is unapologetically promotional.
"Music Videos" for "Bounce" (by J-Rus) and "Sunset Cliffs" (by Paul Wright).
And a Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Performed by a vapid cast of unknowns and fitted for a laughably pat ending, "To Save a Life" takes two solid hours to make its trite points on faith and personal salvation, growing more unbearable as it goes. The evils and misery addressed in the film deserve a far more respectful execution than anything this picture dares to offer.
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