That Ole Devil Called Love
Distinct from gay film and television sitcoms, Save Me is a serious treatment, one whose last moments are affirmative and effective. The downside is that, despite a fine lead in Judith Light and Stephen Lang’s steadying presence in a less noticeable role, Robert Cary’s direction is dreary and static.
Apart from opening scenes back and forth between a scrubbed congregation singing “This is my story, This is my song,” and raucous rock behind cokehead alcoholic Mark Malloy’s (Chad Allen) being loved up, hit for gas money, and abandoned by a male pickup, the non-action occurs at a Southwest adobe-style Christian ministry outside Albuquerque. Too much of the ninety-six minutes involves set pieces of two characters’ awkward dialogue or a single one’s halting monologue-confession on his (in one case, her) life problems, supposedly in therapeutic group sessions or else to one listener such as a pastor.
Conflict arises when, awakening from his El Dom Motel overdose, hospitalized Mark is visited by elder brother Paul (Paul Scallan), who berates the patient for squandering brains and athletics and keeps their mother away in the hallway, but then secretly lays out two months’ fees and drives him to spiritual and substance detox Genesis House.
This voluntary, in part church-funded center for recovery from addiction to drugs, alcohol and tobacco specializes in holistic Christian redemption -- and reaction to the film will be colored by a viewer’s comfort level with the doses of Scripture quoted by the Lord’s camp and the Devil’s. Running the place by the Book, the rulebook and the clock, mid-fiftyish Gayle (Light) is slender, attractive, distantly motherly and castrating to her grown-men boys, insistently so with regard to the “brokenness” of homoeroticism, latent or blatant. The woman’s cool patience, puritanism and certitude cloak something, however, beyond her bedroom coldness. Co-director but subordinate, partly in deference to what he knows, is husband Ted (Lang), discreet in propping up her ego and in reference to her son Ryan from a prior marriage.
Only five months on the wagon himself, he had been offered a job by her, followed by her hand, and although it was her Ryan who was gay and a teen suicide, it is Ted who shows empathy for male relationships that remain unfathomable to her, as at baseball among the seven unathletic residents, all blue-eyed like everyone else except for the odd Hispanic outsider.
Arguably on account of the place’s litany of regulations, there is little cinematic interaction among them to bring out character. The camera, rather, focuses on individuals while each talks about himself, unacceptable as a repeated substitute for dramatic exposition. The only exception is Bill Prior’s (William Dennis Hurley) moment, where his homosexuality peers out from behind gush about girlfriend Maxine Hollister, marriage and children.
Initially rebellious and blasphemous, Mark is roomed with virgin Lester Barkley (Robert Baker), who likes the newcomer to an obscure point of jealousy and whose later failed suicide mirrors a pre-story attempt by Mark. Angry with the world, Mark flees at the first sundown, only to be dissuaded by Scott Cooper (Robert Gant), a long-timer who offers him forbidden tobacco. The runaway stays, integrates, comes to accept Jesus and the Twelve Rules and Five Stages, while friendship deepens with birdhouse-building Scott to the point that Gayle grows anxious to have it broken off.
She does not, but others do recognize her casting certain residents in the image of her estranged, then lost child. Through shaky interpretations of the Bible, she condemns homosexuality as a transgression that can be “cured” by properly directed Christian love. Giving on the outside, even to chocolate or strawberry milkshakes, the woman is inwardly possessive in unadmitted effort to quiet guilt at her failure of true maternal love.
Lack of unqualified parental love, in fact, lies round the heart of the film’s gender hang-ups. Granted that same-sex marriage is the hot-button issue that will not go away, it still is odd that a gay director has his characters trace their presumably inborn sexual preference, or at least the complexities thereof, to parental rejection. Lester’s father beat him as a child for donning his mother’s clothing, and to his hospital deathbed Scott’s longhaired roofer father Henry damns the homosexual offspring to hellfire.
Emotions can be bottled only so long. Gayle’s selfish jealousy boils over at a church-arranged coed dance that would pretend all is unbroken. Lester makes his melodramatic attempt, and with photos and memories Scott plans to leave for the Coast. In humbling her stiff-necked spirit, a haggard Gayle fills the holes in her heart and marriage and, financially, in Genesis House, and masters herself in a “May the Lord be with you” in the words’ real sense.
Of the word genesis, “to be born,” a new beginning promises in a young resident accompanied in by his father and mother, in the marriage relationship of the directors, and in Mark setting out to be what he is. This ending is the best of Save Me, but it cannot redeem what has gone before.
(Released by First Run Features; not rated by MPAA.)