review by Cynthia Fuchs, 4 June 2004

God only knows

"I've been born again my whole life," says 17-year-old Mary (Jena Malone) at the start of Saved! For her, such longstanding faith translates to self-confidence, a sense of knowing where she's headed, always. About to be a senior at American Eagle Christian High School, Mary's feeling extra blessed to be playing keyboards with the Girl Gang for Jesus (better known as the Christian Jewels) and in virginal love with her beautiful boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust).

As Saved! is a high school romantic comedy refitted to poke moderate fun at Christian evangelism, Mary will, in short order, endure a crisis involving sex. Specifically, it involves generous, loving sex, bestowed by Mary on Dean in an effort to dissuade him from believing he's gay. Her rationale is at once crazy and understandable: Dean outs himself as he and Mary are frolicking underwater in a swimming pool. So startled by his confession, Mary hallucinates a visitation from Jesus Himself, urging her to "save" poor Dean; she reads this counsel as a mission, and plops herself upon poor Dean, who rushes to hide his gay porn mag when she arrives unannounced in his bedroom, then goes through the proper motions. When Dean can't give up his magazines after all, his parents send him off to a Christian "treatment facility," and Mary faces senior year without her boy, and pregnant.

She takes the obvious decision, to hide her swelling belly under increasingly big sweaters, several adorned with Christmas or Easter decals, as the film is clunkily organized around "holidays" ("Lucky for me," Mary says, "Pregnancy was about as common as the flesh-eating virus; no one knew what it was"). That her mother Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker) doesn't pick up on her daughter's changing body appears to be the result of her own distraction, an illicit (unmarried) relationship with the high school's high-on-Jesus principal, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). (He's introduced literally back-flipping onto the auditorium stage, pumping his crowd: "Are you down with the G.O.D.?") Skip and Lillian feel guilty about their mutual desire, but they also can't quite figure out how come it feels so good.

Their dilemma mirrors that of the kids, of course, as poor Mary embodies so sweetly, so earnestly, and so intelligently. "Why would God make everyone different if He wanted us all to be the same?" she asks, and even the baby evangelicals are beginning to feel her pain.

Toward the end of resolving this dilemma within 92 minutes, for Mary anyway, Saved! provides her with an appropriate second object of affection, Pastor Skip's skateboarding champion son Patrick (Patrick Fugit). As he identifies Mary as a principled outcast amongst the less than self-reliant lambs, Patrick takes it upon himself to "save" her, by way of asking her on a date. Also vying for Patrick's attention is Mary's "best friend" and the film's anti-goody-two-shoes, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore, working against that sticky image established in A Walk to Remember).

Though she premises her Miss Popularity title on frequent and very visible declarations of faith, Hilary Faye is as mean a girl as ever walked a high school movie hallway. And the movie uses her to its best advantage: at once supercilious and insecure, she's the poster girl for self-serving Christianity. And indeed, the film has part of its most fun with her. "I'm saving myself until marriage," she announces during the girls' target practice at the Emmanuel Shooting Range (promotional tagline: "An Eye for an Eye"), "And I'll use force if necessary."

The other students ritually quake at such pronouncements, and Hilary Faye knows how to use her clout to get what she wants; among her most dedicated acolytes are Tia (Heather Matarazzo) and Veronica (Elizabeth Thai), both dyeing their hair blond to match their idol's, and pleased when Mary's moved "out" of favor as they can scurry in to fill her spot. Mary, for her part, has some help in her resistance from Hilary Faye's brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin). In a wheelchair since a childhood accident (he reports that Hilary Faye calls it a "miracle" that she found him at the base of the tree from which he fell), Roland is as cynical as his sister is pious (that is, both front at least a little). Though she has purchased and drives a van equipped to accommodate Roland's chair, she resents him mightily, asking why he has to "make people feel so awkward about your differently abledness." While she speaks the language, she hasn't quite grasped the concept.

Where Hilary Faye sees a chance at small-pound power in each one of American Eagle's religious spectacles, Roland tends to observe from a distance. During one of these moments -- he's escaped the auditorium for a breather outside -- he meets the new girl, Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the film's other beam of energetic light school's only "Jewess," fond of dramatic goth makeup, cigarettes, and tucking up her skirt. Struck by one another's perceptible outsiderness, Roland and Cassandra start a romance, sexy, smart, and among the film's most compelling relationships; she brings out his rebelliousness, even outfits her car so he can drive it, and he offers her devotion.

Rather like Roland, Saved! is stuck at the level of observation. Directed by Brian Dannelly, and written by Dannelly and Michael Urban, the film's comedy is restrained, more concerned with referencing the high school movie clichés (the girl spats, the fumbling adults, the ridicule of airheaded hotties and elevation of thoughtful dissenters, the diva's comeuppance, and, of course, the prom showdown) that it loses track of its initial focus on this question of what it means to be "saved."

Or maybe more specifically, what it means to be in the business of saving, which has preoccupied institutional religion forever (if only to be financially solvent). That religion as a business has recently discovered the youth market is hardly surprising, and neither is it that the high school movie formula combines with this particular object of parody so easily. The fears that make kids want to be saved are everywhere on display in Saved!: absent parents, sexual mythologies, demonization of others, isolation and alienation. That the movie does offer some viable alternatives to spiritual and moral conformity -- in the shapes of families, in sexual preference and differently abled sex -- is to its credit. That it does so within a nice-girls win, bad-girls suffer formula, is less imaginative.

Directed by:
Brian Dannelly

Jena Malone
Mandy Moore
Macaulay Culkin
Patrick Fugit
Eva Amurri
Martin Donovan
Elizabeth Thai

Written by:
Brian Dannelly
Michael Urban

PG - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.






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