As an inspirational movie designed to get Sunday school classes talking and thinking, “To Save A Life” is effective enough. As a mainstream movie designed to compete for audience dollars with “Avatar” and “The Book of Eli” — it’s got its work cut out for it.
It’s certainly well-intentioned, passing along a message that teenagers need to be sensitive and aware of their more troubled classmates, and to lend a hand whenever possible. But that message is packaged in an incredibly familiar and slow-moving story with about average acting and production values.
Jake and Roger grew up as friends together, but when they entered high school, their paths diverged. Jake (Randy Wayne) became a popular basketball star, while Roger (Robert Bailey Jr.) ended up being endlessly picked on and bullied, sometimes by Jake’s friends.
The opening scene of the film is a funeral; Roger committed suicide in front of his classmates, and Jake is one of the few mourners in attendance. So he starts doing some soul-searching; Could he have done something to help Roger?
That soul-searching, not surprisingly, takes him to a local Christian youth group, “Souled Out.” They’re led by a “with-it” pastor named Chris (Joshua Weigel), the sort who gives fist-bumps to his flock and tells them he’s “stoked” that they showed up for service. But Chris is also doing a little soul-searching; the week before he died, Roger showed up at a youth service, but Chris was too busy to do more than say hi to him.
That’s the one real strength of “To Save A Life;” it doesn’t portray its Christian characters as smugly having all the answers. Instead, the ones we see are struggling just like Jake is, and as Jake inevitably gets interested in Souled Out, he doesn’t automatically find the answers he wants.
But Jake’s spiritual journey is incredibly slow and almost drama-free. It doesn’t help that Wayne is a pretty bland actor; even in Jake’s darkest emotional moments, he looks, at worst, like he has a mild stomachache. Writer Jim Britts and director Brian Baugh are so committed to the arc of enlightenment that we know Jake has to travel that they can’t make him (or most anyone around him) believable enough to care about.
There’s also a persistent, overwrought subplot: As Jake starts hanging around with other youth group members, his old friends turn harsh and resentful. “You’re a Christian,” his girlfriend hisses derisively, as if she was saying, “You’re a serial arsonist.” His best friend gets angry when Jake quits in the middle of a game of beer pong (which is kind of funny, although not on purpose).
What’s worthy about “To Save A Life” comes purely from its nutritional value, and if a teenager becomes a more empathetic person as a result of seeing it, then it’s worth it for him. A lot of his friends, though, might be too bored to get to the redemption part.
TO SAVE A LIFE
Stars: Randy Wayne, Joshua Weigel
Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, adult language, teen drinking
How long: 2:00
For fans of: "The Passion of the Christ," "Permanent Record," the youth pastor who calls everybody "bro"