"Saved!," a John Hughes-inspired teen comedy with a twistit is set at a Catholic high schoolsuccessfully manages the tricky balancing act of being sharply satirical without making fun of its characters. What one's personal religious beliefs are may, indeed, weigh upon what he or she takes away from the experience, but at its core it is a witty and sensitive motion picture that simply questions whether hypocrisy plays a part in a black-and-white-taught religion when human nature clearly calls for a gray area. Life, after all, is not as simple as that, and who, really, is to say what is right and natural and what is wrong and immoral?
On the verge of her senior year at American Eagle Christian High, by-the-book Mary (Jena Malone) becomes wildly conflicted when her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), announces to her that he is gay. In a desperate effort to change his ways, Mary goes against what she has been taught to believe and sleeps with Dean. Soon, Dean has been shipped off to a sort of rehab center after his parents discover gay porn under his bed and Mary is forced to fend for herself when she turns up pregnant. Once a self-proclaimed "groupie for Jesus," Mary's newfound individualism and questioning of Christianity's teachings leads her to be shunned by popular, misguided best friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Seeking solace in two fellow radicalsthe rebellious (and sole Jew in the school) Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound, atheist brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin)Mary and her new pals set out over the course of the school year to try and open up the minds of their tight-vested classmates and pastor principal (Martin Donovan).
"Why would God make everyone different if He wanted us all to be the same?" Mary asks at one point. This is the central notion explored in "Saved!," a perceptive slice-of-life, directed by Brian Dannelly, that nonetheless has a devilish sense of humor. While Mary comes to terms with Dean's revelation and her own pregnancy, which will make her a pariah in her community if most anyone finds out, the self-absorbed Hilary Faye speaks endlessly of being "filled with Christ's love" even though she has so obviously missed the point. Meanwhile, Cassandra subtly ridicules those around her as a way of signifying how easily she can see through their shiny, lost veneers; Roland looks from the outside in, rolling his eyes at the two-facedness he sees from the other students, none more so than fraudulently caring sister Hilary Faye; Pastor Skip worries about the sin of starting a relationship with Mary's mother, Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker); and Patrick (Patrick Fugit), just back from a Christian skateboarding tour, is mostly indifferent about his beliefs as he develops a crush on Mary.
Having never gone to a Christian high school, it can only be assumed, based on the research director Dannelly has noted he did, that this portrayal of such is mostly accurate, if occasionally exaggerated for cinematic purposes. At an assembly at the start of the school year, Pastor Skip uses skewed terms like "get our Christ on," asks his student in rap fashion if they are "down with G-O-D," and invites anyone to come forward and recommit to God after a summer where they may have slid just a little. Students, such as Tia (Heather Matarazzo), speak enthusiastically about having visions of Jesus as a desperate effort to join Hilary Faye's in-crowd. And Hilary Faye, despite claiming to be giving and understanding, drops Mary the second she disagrees with what she says and looks down negatively on her handicapped brother, to boot. The fixedly observed characters who populate "Saved!" are never made fun of by Dannelly for their beliefs and ideas, although those viewers who do not share such strict religious beliefs may naturally find things to giggle and sneer at. Instead, Dannelly zeroes in on the tricky idea that even those people who are faithful worshippers, like Pastor Skip and Hilary Faye, are flawed and confused, still struggling to oblige their religion even as they haven't yet gotten a grip on who they are as human beings. After all, there is a tricky double-standard to be explored when everyone grows up being taught to be strong, free-thinking citizens while never wavering from their said religion's guidelines, especially when such guidelines can be read any number of ways.
Screenwriters Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban do an exceptional job of dealing with their wide ensemble of characters wiithout one-dimensionalizing them. Hilary Faye, for example, the closest thing to an outright villain, is not demonized, and it is impossible not to feel sympathy for her in the conclusion when a key unsavory action of her's is discovered and she must somehow move forward with other people's perception of her changed forever. What she learns in the process, thoughthat nobody is perfect and life is more complicated than what she had been allowing herself to seeis an invaluable stepping stone that makes you actually kind of admire her. As Hilary Faye, this is the very type of part that Mandy Moore (2004's "Chasing Liberty
") needed to prove that she isn't just a singer-turned-wannabe-actress, but a genuinely talented and eclectic thespian who can play a varying degree of roles. Moore is as close to perfection in her alternately funny and poignant turn as she has ever been before; she steals the movie, and her cover version of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" over the opening credits is incendiary.
Coming in a close second, Eva Amurri (2002's "The Banger Sisters
"), whose acidic line deliveries are a way of calling fault to others' beliefs without actually coming off as a mean person, is an utter delight as rebel Cassandra, who falls for soul mate Roland because they understand each other like no one else does. Macaulay Culkin (2003's "Party Monster"), as Roland, is drolly funny in his second accomplished attempt to parlay into an adult actor, and the reliable Jena Malone (2004's "The United States of Leland
") narrowly avoids the typecasting she has become known for by being the" troubled lead actor," rather than the "troubled love interest."
"Saved!," which bases most of its action around holidays and special occurrences during the school year (i.e. the first day of school, Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, the prom), is exceedingly cleverone scene featuring a botched exorcism is scored to the "Tubular Bells" theme from "The Exorcist"but not too silly that its thought-provoking ideas and character relationships get lost in the shuffle. Some subplots are more undernourished than others, such as Patrick and Mary's romance because it is never made clear why he likes her so much, but the heart and passion that were used to make the film and deal with the themes on display is always there, an unfaltering constant. One does not have to be a Christian or even a teenager or twentysomething to understand, appreciate, and be wildly entertained by what "Saved!" has to offer.