To Save a Life: The Film Commissars Attack
A movie which has just debuted caught my attention this morning. It is called To Save a Life, and it is purported to be a film for teens, dealing with teen issues, with an underlying but not-too-subtle Christian message. Here it is in a nutshell: a popular high school athlete’s life is changed forever when his former best friend, ditched because he wasn’t cool enough to remain friends with, commits suicide in front of everyone. The popular athlete begins to question everything, and everyone – encouraged by a hip youth pastor, he leaves behind a hedonistic life for one of Christian fellowship, and makes it a special task to prevent the next rejected loner from following in the footsteps of his deceased friend.
A few clips from the movie I’ve seen floating around on the Web initially left me with mixed feelings. The brand of Christianity being promoted in this film seems, at times, to be a world apart from my own traditional Catholicism. We hear the typical speeches in some instances about how “church” is “judgmental” and “hypocritical” – which are two words often thrown around by people who want to rationalize their own rotten behavior without having to think about it. We ought to be chastised, and another person’s hypocrisy has nothing to do with the objective truth or falsehood of their chastisement.
That being said, it dawned on me that among today’s teenagers, this Christianity-lite is radically good compared to what they are typically exposed to in the purely materialist-hedonist culture that surrounds them like a choking fog 24-7. What really sort of sealed the deal for me though, and prompted me to write this defense of a film I haven’t yet seen, were the reviews that the - yes – liberal media were saying about it. The reviews, as you might guess, are almost unanimously negative: The Village Voice, the NY Times, NPR, and the list could go on for some time, have all panned the movie. Wikipedia states that the reception has been “generally negative to mixed.”
As you might have guessed, most of the reviews, at least of those I read, had very little to say about, for instance, the quality of the acting, the camera work, or any other aspect of the film that didn’t relate to its Christian message. I don’t expect the average film review to be more objective than subjective – after all, we are usually just getting someone’s opinion, and it usually isn’t a film scholar’s. To Save a Life is getting the same treatment, to make a comparison some of you might be familiar with, that Juno got for it’s pro-life theme. [Update: as has been pointed out, the treatment wasn't all that bad, though there were some reviews that dissed it's pro-life message]
And just like Juno, audiences seem to be reacting quite well to To Save a Life, apparently rejecting the insistence of their betters that this movie has little to nothing to offer them. Even the youtube comments are favorable, and you don’t usually see that. I was expecting to see a wave of cynics and anti-religious bigots leaving vulgar and hateful comments, as often happens there, but everyone who saw fit to comment on the trailers seems to think the film looks good, and those who have seen it report that it’s great.
So if audiences seem to love a film, while the critics hate it, this can mean one of two things. It could mean on the one hand that audiences are being superficial and vulgar, while the critics are pointing out serious plotholes or bemoaning the cheap gimmicks, commercials, overuse of special effects and profanity, and all the other things that make a bad film bad. This was clearly the case with a film such as Transformers 2.
Or, it could mean, and in this case I believe it does mean, that the film has a theme which is deeply resonating with today’s youth, but which is utterly despised by the cultural climate from which these film critics hail, one which rife with absurd logical contradictions, moral confusion, shallow relativism, and elitist pretension. Having completely lost the ability to see, let alone touch, anything remotely resembling the transcendent, these film critics have degenerated into a pit of film commissars whose chief duty is not to bring us an even half-assed objective assessment of the merits of the film in question, but rather to ridicule its politics, its religion, and its philosophy, all of which throw up an uncomfortable challenge (even in the form of what looks like a pretty average film) to their own complacent decadence.
Allow me to illustrate. Here are some excerpts from the reviews I read:
To Save a Life wants to rescue kids from the Satanic messages of Gossip Girl—a benign, even worthy enough objective, but must alternatives to empty, materialistic adolescence require baptism in the Pacific? – The Village Voice
To its credit, To Save a Life can be as critical of hypocrisy within the church as it is of the emptiness of a life outside of it, insistently promoting the value of togetherness and social-support structures over duty-bound church attendance. Those are valuable messages. But the film only pays lip service to the severity of the problems teens can face, offering up little in the way of tangible solutions. – NPR
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. –Variety
Where to begin? The first one can’t understand why Christianity might be needed to combat shallow materialism, the second one can’t imagine it ever becoming a viable solution, and the third one bemoans the entrance of a (gulp) “church.”
Notice a common theme here? Most of the reviews just can’t help but note that the film “means well.” So it turns out, there is a message in there that might be redeemable. It challenges the materialism-hedonism so prevalent in our times, that experience and statistics show time and again lead to nothing but emptiness, tragedy and sometimes horrific violence. What obscures this wonderful message?
The unfortunate notion that it might take something more than rootless, arbitrary meandering in the secular wasteland of ideas in order to come to an understanding that there is more to life than crude matter, that there is a dimension of human experience that is not anchored to or embedded in Newtonian physics and neuro-chemical reactions, or, I don’t know, the idea that Christians have been doing a better, more consistent, more logical, rational job resisting the forces of unrestrained selfishness and all of its tragic, disgusting, and obscene consequences than secular liberals ever have or ever will?
This touches upon my own reconnection with the Catholic faith, the realization that secular ideologies are morally bankrupt, that they cannot morally justify themselves or their vision of how society ought to be arranged. If matter is all there is, then Jake’s friends have the right idea - eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. And if some kid offs himself because he wasn’t invited to the party, he’s just hastened his journey to our common fate as compost for future generations. It’s the Circle of Life. To resist under these circumstances becomes a meaningless, futile act that can only be sustained by the sort of clumsy mental acrobatics that renders one incapable of becoming much more than a second-rate film commissar.
I saved the best for last, however. Andy Webster of the NY Times, the big daddy of mainstream liberal print, couldn’t even bring himself to agree with his colleauges on the film’s redeemable qualities. In what more closely resembles a drive-by shooting than even a semi-serious review, Webster writes,
Jake’s buddy Doug (Steven Crowder) persuades other students to repudiate him, a metaphor for the delusional perception that Christianity is oppressed in America.
Of course a society in which the mainstream news outlets retain secular film commissars whose attacks on Christian or even quasi-Christian films appear to be done more in a spirit of duty than genuine interest in the art of film would never give anyone cause to think that the Christian point of view is, in fact, not the most widely represented.
And of course we all know that Christianity really is the coolest thing amongst all the kids, that no one has ever been made fun of or ostracized for standing on a moral principle, that any typical teenage boy could throw away a hot girlfriend, his basketball teammates, parties on the weekends and the approval of his parents just to make a big deal out of helping a strange kid who no one likes and who he hardly knows and everyone would just stand up and applaud, because Christianity is just that hip.
Sorry, NY Times, but this movie gets one thing right, in spite of whatever flaws it may hold: Christianity requires sacrifice. Since its inception Christians have had to turn their backs on friends, family, employers, even their countries to remain obedient to God. Sometimes that sacrifice results in what one could easily call “oppression”, a dark night of the soul, where one wonders and questions whether or not it is all worth it. Without faith in God, it really isn’t worth it. It’s a struggle that nature won’t reward you for, that the Earth won’t remember between now and when the sun goes supernova in a few billion years, and that your shallow secular friends probably won’t care that much about in the long run anyway.
So if you really think about the premises that must be true in order for any struggle against the dominant paradigm of materialism, hedonism and selfishness to have any meaning whatsoever, you’d each and every one take the anti-Christian acid out of your reviews.