The film “To Save a Life” has been in theatres for a few weeks now, adding to the list of movies with Christian themes which have made box office splashes.
The recent success of “The Blind Side” and “Passion of the Christ” a few years ago revealed audiences’ willingness to indulge in Christian perspectives with big-name Hollywood talent. The success of “Fireproof” and “Facing the Giants” produced by Georgia’s Sherwood Baptist Church has also generated plenty of attention.
In the eyes of “To Save a Life” director Brian Baugh the film about teens wrestling with weighty social, emotional and spiritual issues should be classified differently.
“In the end I hope that people wouldn’t view our film in relation to (‘Fireproof” and ‘Facing the Giants’), and just view it independently and on its own merits and faults,” Baugh told Everyday Christian in an interview. “I think anytime we classify something as ‘faith-based’ or ‘Christian’ that it immediately diminishes the effectiveness of the film in the general market.”
He made further illustrations to music and theatre to drive home his point.
“What does ‘Christian film’ mean anyway? Do you call Handel’s Messiah Christian music? Is Rembrandt’s work Christian painting? Is ‘Les Miserables’ Christian literature? Are films like ‘Walk the Line’ and ‘Bruce Almighty’ Christian films because the main character goes through a conversion experience? I’m not trying to imply that our little film is to the same level of artistry as some of the masterpieces listed above, but just trying to show that calling things ‘Christian’ is a clumsy poorly-defined category, and that ultimately it diminishes the relevance of the media to the general market.
“Just think of how many people would have avoided seeing the beautiful example of the grace of Christ if they were told that ‘Les Miserables’ was a Christian book, a Christian musical, or a Christian movie. So I wish the label would go away.”
That label, even if it isn’t deserved, will likely stay affixed to “To Save a Life” because of key plot elements. Without giving away the ending – hopefully – the story focuses on Jake Taylor, a Southern California basketball star headed to the University of Louisville on a scholarship. He and his girlfriend Amy attend wild beer bashes with friends and have sex with one another.
In the meantime Jake turns away from his childhood friend Roger who commits suicide at school in front of him. What happens from there is Jake trying to save his own life in addition to Jonny, an outcast he befriends indirectly through youth group experiences headed by Jeff, a youth pastor. The lifesaving aspect also touches on abortion when Amy becomes pregnant and faces the same dilemma as millions of teen girls every year.
Baugh said he was originally drawn to the script in part because his own life has been directly touched by suicide.
“When I first read the script I was initially drawn to how messy it was – there were parties, a kid smoking pot, and a suicide mixed in with spiritual issues and people wondering if there was any meaning to all of this,” he said. “That was great because it was honest and actually what happens in so many people’s lives. Things aren’t all tidy in life, it’s all jumbled together complicated and messy and I thought this script was willing to deal with that reality.
“I also connected to the screenplay in a more personal way as I have had two close friends commit suicide. So I felt I could relate to the story and the main character in many ways. The core of the script to me is broken people reaching out to other broken people and potentially making a difference in someone’s life, and that was something that I could get behind and was an important theme to devote some time to.
“Finally, the script didn’t seem entirely like a film that would only preach to the choir, and I was very much attracted to the fact that this script had the potential to be relevant to all students.”
The relationship between Jake and Amy — the star athlete and attractive girlfriend – seems stereotypical on the surface, but Baugh saw the characters’ complexity right away.
“The most interesting thing about Amy that I hope audiences get is that she isn’t just mean for no reason, but that she is clutching onto this relationship with Jake,” Baugh explained. “This relationship is how she is defining herself and what she has given her life to so when that gets threatened by Jake’s searching for answers and his exploration of God through the mentor figure Chris, that is incredibly threatening to what she has built her life on. She isn’t so much trying to be insensitive to the situation with Roger, but trying to get Jake back and get some structure back to what she has built her life on. So I think it would be cool if teens noticed how unhealthy it might be to build you life around a relationship as opposed to God.
“From Jake’s side, I would think it would be interesting if teens noticed the self-sacrifice, and how Jake was willing to give up his dreams to care for Amy, and to take responsibility for the pregnancy that he contributed to. Not that I would want people to give up their dreams all over the country, as I think dreams are often God given and very important and should be given a high priority. But they shouldn’t have the highest priority and they should always be submitted and held loosely so that the dreams don’t end up controlling the dreamer. It’s very tricky waters to navigate and discern, but good to think about and to have some examples of submitted dreams.”
The interplay between Jake, Amy, the group of friends Jake meets in youth group and how that causes friction with the “jock” social scene creates elements that should connect with contemporary high schoolers and young adults.
“It is my dream that this film would relate to kids who haven’t been to church just as well as those who have,” Baugh said. “I did my best, with the constraints that we had, to make it as relevant as possible for all teens. Based on our test audiences and focus groups, that we have succeeded for the most part. Unless, someone has something against God or is very sensitive to or offended by stories with spiritual content, then most seem to enjoy the story and take something from it.
“Ultimately I believe that many of the themes in this film while based on the teachings of Jesus are universal and apply to all of our lives, as do Newton’s laws of physics. For example, if we are more concerned about our own reputation, we will end up hurting others and causing pain in our own life. If we face our pain and take ownership of it and bring our feelings into the light, then we can start on the road to healing. If we reach out and care for those that are hurting then we may be able to radically change someone’s life (maybe even save a life) without ever knowing it. I think these themes can resonate with people whether or not they have entered a church building. “
And from a basketball standpoint, why was Louisville picked as the recruiting spot of choice for Jake? Wouldn’t it be more realistic for a California kid to land at a Pac-10 school? The answer wasn’t as complicated or deep as the plot itself.
“They (Louisville) were the only ones that would let us use their name!” Baugh exclaimed. “So it was purely a matter of permission and not creative choice.
“The producers must have asked about 40-50 schools. Originally it was scripted as Oregon. So it could be a (Division I) school that is respectable, but not great. Louisville is probably too good of a basketball school for Jake to get into. But it would be hard to turn down a chance to play for (Louisville coach Rick) Pitino, no one but UCLA, maybe Arizona, would be traditionally better in the West.”