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.

8 Responses to To Save a Life: The Film Commissars Attack

  • Amen, bro! To your concluding commentary.

    I wish I could say you’re wrong about Christianity Lite being the best we can do for teenagers, but having some of my own I’ve had to reluctantly conclude you’re right. There aren’t too many of ‘em out there reading the Confessions of Augustine, and what secular material they are getting exposed to often has all the qualities of Lite without the Christianity.

    Admittedly some of the previous forays into Christian filmmaking have been a little less than what those of us who aren’t teens would like to see–I thought Juno (which isn’t really Christian, having one mention of a “precious gift from Jesus” and one of Juno’s stepmother’s attendance of a Unitarian church) was a bit fluffy and I’ve heard that Facing the Giants ran to the Prosperity Gospel side of things. Nonetheless, a kid who is receptive to that that level of literature will get more out of fluff-with-a-positive-message than of plain fluff or worse. Unfortunately, the format will fail to impress the viewer who would prefer thoughtful exploration of the subject.

    It’s too bad the reviewers you cite were too distracted by their personal agendas to fairly assess the film as that sort of criticism isn’t likely to lead to better Christian filmmaking. In the case of Variety it seems they’ve not only dispensed with engaging reviewers schooled in critical literary analysis, they’ve ceased to bother to ensure that their reviewers have basic command of written English.

    I’m curious about this film as our church youth director is promoting it (if I tag along to see it, I’ll let you know what I think.)

  • cminor,

    I don’t think Christianity-lite is the “best” we can do, but I have to say it’s better than nothing. If anything the fact that this is what kid’s choices have been reduced to is a powerful argument for home schooling.

    And no, Juno wasn’t really a Christian film – but the decision to not murder one’s own child after having been confronted by a pro-life Christian as well as having seen first hand the sort impersonal, clinical ugliness of the abortion clinic was yet another message that the liberal film reviewers couldn’t stomach.

    The sad thing is that one always gets the sense that these critics know that their worldview is damaged and even a little silly, but they are so irrationally terrified of Christianity that they will cling to it regardless.

  • Good review of the reviews. I hadn’t heard of the film but will have to check it out.

  • Juno got great reviews.

    “I was shocked to find myself tearing up at the end” – NY Times

    “Screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman make Juno the marvelously un-still center of a wistfully acerbic comedy that qualifies as a feminized version of Knocked Up — and one that’s not afraid of raising hackles in pursuit of laughs.” – NPR

    “final act is nicely worked out by Cody, whose dialogue occasionally seems too precociously precious for words but who nevertheless makes a decisive impression as a crafty and playful writer to watch. Under Reitman’s fleet direction, pic races along at a pacey clip, propelled by generally catchy songs” – Variety

    “I’ve seen Junothree times since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it only gets better with each viewing.” – Village Voice

  • That’s… interesting. I guess I was wrong about that. I could have sworn it got panned by the same critics. Perhaps I’m thinking of a different film.

    Well, thanks for keeping me honest and accurate :)

  • I’m not sure the reviewers quite knew what to make of Juno, Joe; here was a film that pretty explicitly promoted the pro-life viewpoint without being overtly religious. I liked Juno, by the way, though I would have dearly loved to have gotten a more profound exploration of the issues it raises out of it. And it seems very popular with teens.

    At Rotten Tomatoes, three reviewers out of ten were positive towards To Save a Life, so it hasn’t been universally panned. The LA Times’ reviewer, surprisingly, spoke well of the film.

    I think you make a good point, Joe, about the prejudices of the reviewers. I looked over a number of negative reviews, and while a few brought up legitimate criticisms, there was an awful lot of fear and loathing of anything overtly Christian. Several reviews were astonishingly brief, as if the reviewer couldn’t get past the religious aspect to review the film on any other points. An interesting attitude when you consider that films like Birth of a Nation or Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda pieces are often lauded for their composition or
    cinematography in the same breath as they are condemned for their subject matter. One is left wondering if their objections to the writing, acting and directing would have been as strenuous if the film being reviewed were something along the lines of Superbad.

    My apologies if it seemed I suggested you were being overly defeatist. I actually homeschooled for years and had kids in Catholic high school and currently have a couple in public so perhaps I’m excessively cynical about education. Short of blowing up your TV and internet and moving to a remote enough area that there’s little contact with the rest of society, though, there’s really no way to insulate children from the nastier aspects of the secular. Homeschooling helps, but it’s no guarantee that a kid will continue to make choices based on what he’s taught at home once he’s out in the world.

    Also, it’s not realistic to expect an old head on young shoulders, even on a precocious kid. They lack life experience, and they’re saturated in fluff everywhere they turn–if they watch TV, if they read popular teen lit, if they listen to popular music (even Christian), if they spend time on the ‘net, if they have friends who do any of the above. If your fourteen-year-old acquires a taste for Dostoyevski, that’s groovy–but he’s in the minority.

    When you think about it in historical terms, there’s always been a tendency to fluff up evangelical literature for the young, and perhaps it was with this in mind. John Bunyan laid on catechism with all the subtlety of a twelve-pound maul, after all, and Johann Wyss’s attempt to inculcate faith in Divine Providence in The Swiss Family Robinson was so over-the-top at times that one of my kids described the plot as “they’ve been shipwrecked in a farmer’s market.” But you don’t get too many arguments for introducing teens to Christian literature via Brideshead Revisited or Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Which is probably just as well as many adults who read them don’t really get what
    they’re about. Considering that and that in a film format you have a space of two hours or so to(1) tell a story that will hold the viewer’s interest and (2) make your point clear, there are some limitations on how deep an exploration of the theme is possible. If your purpose is to make a film that provokes teenagers to think about the consequences of premarital sex (Juno) or what it means to live your Christianity (To Save a Life, if what I’m getting from the synopsis is correct) it’s going to seem a little fluffy to an adult. But it may be just what the average kid needs.

  • Yeah, in seeing the movie for myself already, I definitely agree with what Cminor’s saying, especially towards the end when he was commenting about the 2-hour space of time for the writer of the film to keep it interesting but pointed for his targeted audience of teenagers. I think a lot of critics of films have simply stopped thinking about who the target audience is and/or that they’ve also conveniently forgotten the limitations of any film. This is not to say that the film couldn’t have used improvement here or there (not that I’m a critic or that I have anything to add or take away from To Save a Life that I could tell you off the top of my head); it is, however, to say that at the end of the day, one has to ask themselves if the film did the audience any good. And, I think anyone who’s honest with themselves and others viewing it in this country of Western ideals and lifestyles will be able to see the benefits such a film holds for prospective teenagers.

    Now, I’m only a sophomore in college, but I have to stress that it doesn’t take much “life experience” to realize what’s realistic in a film and what’s not – especially if the film is about /your/ age group. One review I read indicated that a teenager like Jake couldn’t possibly cope with all that went on in the movie and change so much in just a school year. I wish I could tell this to everyone and not be mocked, but, really? With God at work, anything’s possible, and I am a testament to large amounts of change in short amounts of time with regard to this past year. When we start surrendering more of our lives to Him, He starts changing things up so fast it makes our heads spin.

    But, to explain this to a secular world, I’d simply have to say that, while coping and change like that don’t seem typical, nor are high school shootings – and don’t even think about minimizing the school shootings that have happened in our country’s history, because they certainly aren’t happening daily, monthly, or even yearly. To say the least, when out of the ordinary things happen, out of the ordinary results follow – therefore, the secular response against said reviewer’s skepticism is as follows: someone committed suicide, the community was affected, someone in the community was affected deeply enough to do something about it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

    I think we underestimate what a good old, transparent and genuine talk with our Fellows will do for us – the maturity gained and given to us by the Father is incredible. All we gotta do is be open to Him, and who knows where He’ll take us?

    This was a great review, by the way, Mr. Hargrave. Thank you for sharing – I’ve already shared this on Facebook in the hopes that friends will give it a read and open their minds beyond what the world regularly gives them.

    And thank you to the rest of you for the feedback. It’s encouraging to know that other people think beyond their comfort zones (i.e. step up to defend the Christian message of this film).

    Let’s all be so bold as to continue being witnesses to the Lord in all His goodness and glory for the rest of our fellows around us every day.

    – Kevin.

  • Just wanted to chime in here. I am a Catholic youth minister, and this film was a pure gift. It was a limited release, but with a little asking it came to our local theater. I could nit-pick about the few elements which slightly dismissed Catholicism, but the “youth group issues” are universal. I thought it was well acted and engaging. I feel it is a stronger film all around than any of the previous Christian movies such as “facing the giants”.
    It succeeded in portraying a youth undergoing a conversion, but without hitting us over the head with it. We saw the way his actions were changed, and the way he abandoned all his popular friends for truth. I also applaud the fact that the instant he decided to give God a chance, his life was not immediately perfect. This is a strong film that connects with youth, It is worth your time and attention.

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