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Saved!

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A mostly toothless satire of contemporary Christian culture as imagined by the popular media, “Saved!” is an amiable, mostly entertaining teen comedy that scrapes by on the talent of its formidable young cast. Directed by Brian Dannelly from a script he wrote with Michael Urban, “Saved!” wraps its simple sociological lessons in a conventional storyline: when the all too obviously-named Mary (Jena Malone) discovers that her adorable boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) is gay, she reasons that the only way to “save” him is to have sex. Of course, Mary ends up pregnant, which you might imagine is a major no-no at American Eagle Christian High School.

American Eagle might start off with prayers and hymns at morning assembly, but in most respects, it operates like any secular high school. Mary hangs out with the Christian Jewels, a popular clique led by Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore, marginally spoofing her good girl image), a narrow-minded harpy with a fake orange tan and globs of blue eye shadow. Hilary Faye bends over backwards to congratulate herself for taking care of her wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin, quite good), who takes every opportunity to prick holes in his sister’s unflattering self-righteousness. When Hilary Faye discovers that Dean has been sent to Mercy House for “degayification,” she reminds Mary gravely, “You’re not born gay, you’re born again.”

The longer Mary hides her secret from her friends, the less tolerant she is of their own special brand of self-satisfied sanctimoniousness. Drifting from Hilary’s non-stop prayer meetings towards Roland’s cynical worldview, Mary discovers an unlikely friend in Roland’s girlfriend Cassandra (Eva Amurri), a rebellious troublemaker and the school’s only Jewish student. Complicating matters even more is Patrick (Patrick Fugit), the skateboarding son of school principal Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). While Patrick quickly develops a crush on Mary, Mary’s own mother Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker) begins to explore her feelings for Pastor Skip.

As Skip, Donovan delivers his usual, low-key, quietly intelligent performance, despite the indignity of having to spout purposefully dated hip-hop slang in order to look woeful and foolish (at one student gathering, he asks “Who’s down with G-O-D?”) to the intelligentsia in the audience. Skip never convincingly behaves as a fully formed character, however, which adds a sense of frustration to what could have been meaningful scenes with Lillian, Patrick, Mary, and the other students. Dannelly stumbles even harder with the oft-used “climactic public revelations” sequence, in which several shocking truths are revealed at the prom. Handled more deftly, the messages of tolerance and forgiveness central to the filmmaker’s thesis might have been worked – but clumsy, spotlight-washed speeches don’t cut it.

“Saved!” is at its best when it allows its pious characters to be seen with something that resembles humanity (although watching Hilary Faye, eyes closed with one hand in the air and one hand on her heart, always generates a hearty laugh), but the movie never goes far enough in its criticism of zealousness and persecution. Some story threads surely would have been interesting to follow in more depth (Dean at Mercy House, Cassandra’s relationship with Roland), but Malone – who had better be careful lest she make a career out of playing troubled schoolgirls – is a really excellent performer, and she earns the attention of the story and the audience.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/14/04.

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