Robert Cary's "Save Me" is hardly the incendiary, ripped-from-the-headlines passion play that a short description of it might imply. And indeed its poster, depicting its star, Chad Allen, skull-capped and mouth slightly agape, pointing an inverted cross to his temple, revolver-style, likewise promises a scorching take-down of bullying American fundamentalism. Yet "Save Me" isn't a teeth-bared addition to the culture wars; surprisingly docile and rigorously even-handed in its portrait of a New Mexico Christian sexual "re-education" house for men, Cary and screenwriter Robert Desiderio are not courting controversy as much as curiously surveying a state of mind. Though the film is too hung up on tidy explanations and often seems desperate to create clear and quantifiable motivations for its characters' actions (there's a certain Screenwriting 101 going on here), "Save Me" is appealing in its refusal to demonize any of it characters.
The greatest beneficiary of this benevolent attitude is undoubtedly Gayle, the founder and den mother of Genesis House, a home for homosexuals wishing to free themselves of their "unholy desires," nestled in the sun-dappled New Mexico hills like an oasis -- or a mirage. As played, impressively, by Judith Light, Gayle is hardly your garden-variety big-screen bible thumper, but rather a truly nurturing, if undoubtedly wayward soul.
Even though Gayle is burdened with back story (she lost a gay teenaged son to suicide, and thus made it her mission to save others from a similar fate), Light burrows into her with a tortured dignity, thoroughly inhabiting a pedant who puts her admirable maternal instinct to bad use. Christian charity and forgiveness is the order of the day, not brainwashing, and her self-righteousness comes out in little passive-aggressive spurts, as when she gently asks whether a shirt one of her lodgers is wearing is too pink.
"Save Me" might have been more fully realized if it had focused fully on Gayle (as well as on her partner, Ted, played by underused character actor Stephen Lang, with whom Light shares a sweet and natural intimacy in their few scenes together). Instead, the film is more dedicated to the love that blossoms between new Genesis acolyte Mark (Chad Allen) and regular boarder Scott (Robert Gant). Introduced speeding down a dusty highway, snorting coke, before rocketing into some sweaty bumping and grinding in a seedy motel with a hard-bodied trick, Mark is a burn-out forced to enter Gayle's halfway house by his religious, fed-up brother. A case couldn't be made for Cary's subtlety in outlining his characters: Mark screaming for his mother on an underlit hospital floor cuts immediately to the gentle Scott building a birdhouse on Genesis's expansive, radiant desert property.
Yet Cary's broad strokes are perfectly applicable to what is essentially a cursorily topical melodrama; ultimately, taskmaster Gayle tearily watches from the sidelines as a classical forbidden-love scenario takes over. Cary, whose last film was the relationship comedy "Ira and Abbey," shows real affection for his two romantic leads, and it must be said how refreshing it is to see two out actors, such as Allen and Gant (most recognizable from their TV work on, respectively, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Queer as Folk"), enact a wholly convincing, if too often detoured, love affair.
Allen, with his sorrowful wide-set eyes, has an appealingly rough, seen-it-all demeanor that belies his youth, but Gant's sensitive everyguy masculinity is what gives the coupling its real power and sex appeal. Despite the film's occasional mawkishness (which is highlighted by an oppressive litany of lousy pop songs), Gant and Light turn something bordering on schematic and sentimental into an articulate pocket portrait of genuinely difficult emotions.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]