On the surface, "To Save a Life" doesn't sound that different from a host of indie films -- a drama involving a teen coping with the aftermath of a student's suicide who finds solace in a group of outsiders.
The film, which opens Friday, deals with myriad real-life issues facing teens such as drugs, sex and social acceptance. The plot focuses on star athlete Jake Taylor, who seemingly has it all; he has a basketball scholarship, good looks, a cheerleader girlfriend and hangs with the in-crowd. But when a loner, an old friend from his past, shoots himself at school, his world is turned upside down and he seeks answers on how he could have made a difference.
"To Save a Life" is meant to be uplifting and appeal to a wide audience. Which is part of the reason that the filmmakers don't want to make too much of the fact that this is a faith-based film.
"The real message of this film is to try and offer help to people that are in trouble," said Josh Weigel, who plays the role of a youth pastor in the film. "I don't know what that kind of movie is called, movie with a purpose, a positive film, inspirational or redemptive film. It doesn't really matter."
The film is being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films, which had a breakout hit in 2008 with the Christian film "Fireproof." With a budget well under $1 million, the film, which starred Kirk Cameron, grossed $33 million thanks in large part to grass-roots marketing to church audiences.
Like "Fireproof," "To Save a Life" is produced by a church-based production company, in this case New Song Pictures, a division of New Song Ministries in Oceanside. But that's where the similarities with the more overtly Christian "Fireproof" end. In fact, the new film may have more in common with Fox's "Glee" than it does with previous Christian films, including a rainbow-colored cast of misfits and a good-looking mentor who guides them through the chaos of high school life.
Jim Britts wrote the screenplay -- he's also a producer on the film -- after learning that the top influence on teen behavior is not parents, school or even church, but movies.
"I work with troubled teens every day and see the severity of the poor choices they make," said Britts of his 10 years as a youth pastor at New Hope Church. "Movies are a powerful way to illustrate the consequences of making the wrong choice while reinforcing positive actions. "Not a day goes by without talking to a kid going through some kind of pain."
Many of those associated with "To Save a Life" are understandably nervous about being typecast as "Christian" filmmakers. It's not that they are embarrassed by their beliefs, but the track record of faith-based films has been spotty. "To Save a Life" used Hollywood professionals to upgrade the quality of the film, but that was not always an easy task.
"It's hard to commit to being in a film with any kind of Christian undertones, as most actors don't want to be pigeonholed," said casting director Liz Lang. "Christian films can be risky. You can believe in all sorts of things, but when you start talking about God and Jesus, people turn away."
Initially, Randy Wayne, who plays Jake, passed on auditioning for the role because it was a faith-based movie with a low budget.
"I was afraid it would look really cheesy and I would too," said Wayne, who changed his mind after reading the script. Jake's struggles are the heart of the film but the guiding light is Youth Pastor Chris Vaughn, played by actor Weigel. Casting the role of a spiritual leader is crucial especially in faith-based films. "Pastors are depicted as being really preachy," said Britts. "I knew Chris had been a youth pastor and he came in and nailed it."
"To Save a Life" is co-produced by Outreach Films, which handled the marketing campaigns for "Fireproof."
"The grass-roots marketing, especially on the Internet, is a significant part of reaching our teen audience," said Meyer Gottlieb, president and chief operating officer of Samuel Goldwyn Films, which plans to distribute two faith-based films a year. "We want entertaining films that resonant with people, make them feel good and change their life for the better." Among the marketing strategies is a Facebook page that also offers tools for at-risk kids, such as suicide hotlines, art contests and other creative outlets.
"We want to empower teens to be a messenger of hope by reaching out and befriending someone in trouble," said Britts.