Life Prescribed

Life Prescribed

Life Prescribed is a very low budget film that I assume had only a tiny release beyond being shown at the church that was involved in making it. It is about 50 minutes long.

Basically it’s a Christian propaganda fable: A man becomes addicted to prescription pain pills after back surgery. His life spirals out of control. He is arrested, and his secret is revealed to his family and employer. With the help of supportive people in his life, and participation in a (secular, or at least not explicitly fundamentalist Christian) rehab program, he seeks to recover. He makes modest progress for a time, but he can’t sustain it. Soon he’s in worse shape than ever, and has lost everything. But luckily he comes to realize, with the help of a no-nonsense Christian pastor, that the true road to overcoming his drug problem is to “surrender” to God/Jesus. (Since God/Jesus isn’t around for him to surrender directly to, of course this means he must surrender to the Christians who speak for God/Jesus, who are conveniently available to be surrendered to.) We are informed that this has all been based on a true story, and that the man has fully recovered from his drug problem, has been restored to his family, and is now a Christian pastor himself.

As far as the production values, Life Prescribed is really not bad for what it is. I’ve seen many low budget indies where the lighting, audio, story continuity, etc. were decidedly worse.

The acting is mixed. The main characters are no worse than average for this level production. A few of the lesser characters are weaker. The boss is pretty wooden and unconvincing. Possibly the weakest is the pastor. Interestingly, only his voice is in the film; you hear him as the other end of a phone conversation. But for all the world it sounds like he’s simply reading the script.

The protagonist is frankly unlikable. In a sense, I suppose that’s intentional. I think the idea is that before he comes to Jesus, he is arrogant and thinks he can solve all his problems without supernatural help, and so he needs to be humbled before he can turn his life around.

But the guy’s just an asshole. In the very first scene in the movie, he meets his wife for lunch (he’s late). The young waiter—for some reason bizarrely unconfident and nervous to the point of acting scared to death—makes a few verbal errors and fumbles a few tasks. The guy responds by smirkingly ridiculing and humiliating him.

Not only did that immediately make me root for him to fuck up his life with drugs (or at least get his food spat in), but to a lesser degree it turned me against his wife too, since her reaction was a sort of “Oh you!” mock objection, indicating she was quite tickled by his alpha male behavior. She’s someone we’re supposed to sympathize with due to the collateral damage she suffers from his drug addiction, but I have little use for someone who thinks a verbal bully is a great husband until she finds out he’s an addict.

I mean, when he’s “on top of the world” and successfully hiding his drug problem, he’s not successfully hiding the fact that he’s an asshole, yet the people around him function as enablers by not objecting to that.

One thing that occurred to me watching this film is how rarely in movies I see religion treated as an integral part of the characters’ lives. It happens in this film (not just at the end when he finds Jesus, but throughout the film: he identifies as a Christian, his wife works at the church/rehab facility where he eventually ends up, he’s given a New Testament while briefly jailed, etc.) because it’s a formulaic film designed to sell a certain version of Christianity. But other than in this kind of film (which I rarely have occasion to see), it seems pretty uncommon—whether we’re talking mainstream Hollywood films, indies, foreign films, whatever—that a big part of the story in a film is religion and the effects it has on people’s lives.

Or maybe I shouldn’t even limit it to a “big part.” I’d say very few films depict the role of religion in people’s lives roughly in proportion to what it is in reality for the average person. If I think about the total number of minutes I’ve seen movie characters in church, say, compared to in schools, police stations, strip clubs, bars, taxis, battlefields, whatever, it seems pretty darn low compared to in real life.

It’s like movies are either self-consciously religious in a pragmatic, propagandistic way to support some particular religion (you pretty much know what you’re getting when something is identified as a “Christian movie,” just as you would with “Christian music,” a “Christian novel,” etc.) or the role of religion is ignored or marginalized, with few exceptions.

Anyway, clearly I have at least some cynicism or skepticism about movies of Life Prescribed’s ilk, with their ham-handed “you need to join our religion to win in life” messaging. But really how objectionable do I find them and why?

Certainly there are things I respect about a movie like this. I mean, this was made by people (I gather) who devote a good portion of their lives to helping others with major life problems like drug addictions, and who sincerely believe that the most effective way of doing that involves getting people to convert to their religion (or practice it more consistently if they are already believers, like the protagonist in this movie). I assume most people involved in “faith-based” programs are genuinely trying to do good. And I don’t think they’re completely delusional; surely there are indeed people whose lives are better (they got off drugs, whatever) because they bought into some religious program like what’s advocated in this film.

In that sense, if you sincerely think you’re doing good through your religion, and to some extent you’re right in thinking that, I understand why you’d want to use art—movies, books, what have you—to further your efforts.

But films that oversimplify things and minimize any nuance or complexity in order to steer the audience toward certain predetermined beliefs and behavior are typically not very good or very interesting films. They just come across as patronizingly manipulative.

And religious message art like this is generally off-putting to me in that it almost always comes across not as “here’s one path that works for some people” but as “this is the obligatory path for everyone.”

Also, even if, say, a certain faith-based program helped some people, it wouldn’t follow that it helped them because its underlying tenets were true. Maybe people who are wired a certain way can benefit from adopting certain beliefs about supernatural beings and what needs to be done to access their assistance. That doesn’t mean those particular beliefs are true, i.e., that those supernatural beings actually exist and actually involve themselves in people’s lives in the specified ways. The truth of something is not the same as the pragmatic consequences of believing it.

So I feel like a movie like this is trying to get the audience to draw from it the conclusion that you have to believe, say, and do certain Christian things in order to get off drugs (and obtain other benefits, in this life and beyond), and furthermore that the reason that that’s the case is that their particular Christian worldview and theology is accurate. I just think—even if the story it depicts is a hundred percent true—that it constitutes a weak argument for the former and a weaker argument for the latter.

I’d also say that while I don’t disagree that humility is a virtue—I think it’s good, and accurate, that I realize that I don’t have all the answers, that I’m flawed, that I have a great deal of room for improvement, etc.—it does not follow from this that I should “surrender” to folks who insist that they, and their magic book, etc., are authorized to speak for some alleged being who does have all the answers, is flawless, has no room for improvement, etc. I can be appropriately humble about my own imperfections, yet still think they’re full of shit.

Life Prescribed has its heart in the right place, even if in certain respects I find it objectionable. I suppose to some modest degree it can help people to understand some of the pain and ugliness of drug addiction—for the addicts and for the people in their lives affected by their self-destruction—and inform them about one way that has helped some addicts with their drug problem. Its production values are rough if you’re used to much higher budget “real” movies, but for the most part aren’t terrible.

But overall, it’s more lame than not.

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