Director : Brian Dannelly
Screenplay : Brian Dannelly & Michael Urban
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Jena Malone (Mary), Mandy Moore (Hilary Faye), Macaulay Culkin (Roland), Patrick Fugit (Patrick), Heather Matarazzo (Tia), Eva Amurri (Cassandra), Chad Faust (Dean), Elizabeth Thai (Veronica), Martin Donovan (Pastor Skip), Mary-Louise Parker (Lillian), Kett Turton (Mitch)
Making fun of overzealous, fanatical fundamentalist Christians is one of the easiest things in the world to do-even for other Christians. Fundamentalists kick their faith into epic-level kitsch by combining holier-than-thou do-gooderism and self-righteousness with their overabundant energy and willful dismissal of anything and everything that doesn't fit into their neat little categories. Despite their conviction, to everyone who does not share their black-and-white worldview they're just kind of absurd. Because that target is so broad, it's something of a miracle that Brian Dannelly's directorial debut, Saved!, is not a one-note Christian bash fest, but rather a surprisingly nuanced satire of religion gone bad. Dannelly's film is not anti-religion and it's not even anti-Christian, although it is true that the less-religious characters are the ones who come out looking the best. Rather, the film skewers the way in which some Christians use their faith as a weapon against others while disguising it as genuine concern for their immortal souls. There are plenty of ways to share your faith with others, and Saved! only mocks the ones that put people down in the process.
On paper, Saved! fits easily into the teen comedy mold, complete with conflicting cliques, difficulties with parents, a rock music soundtrack, and even a climax that takes place at the prom (although I can't think of any other prom climaxes that involve a van being driven into a 20-foot billboard of Jesus). The twist is that it takes place at a conservative Christian high school, and it is the students' differing religious beliefs-or even the varying intensity of their beliefs-that drives wedges between them.
The heroine of the story is a virginal high school senior named Mary (natch), played by Jena Malone (Donnie Darko). Mary is a good Christian girl, but she is faced with a major dilemma when her hunky boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), confesses that he may be gay. After a delusional moment in a swimming pool in which she thinks she has a vision of Jesus, Mary comes to the conclusion that she must do anything it takes-anything-to make Dean straight. So, she has sex with him.
Unfortunately, sex doesn't do the trick. Dean's parents still find a gay porn mag under his mattress and quickly ship him off to Mercy House for "degayification." Even worse, Mary soon learns that she is pregnant, which is just about the worst thing that can happen to a girl at her high school, especially when her best friend is Hilary Faye (Many Moore), whose name suggests both all-American cutesy girl blandness and the horrifying specter of former televangelist Tammy Faye Baker. Hilary Faye is the most Christian of all Christian teenage girls, or so she would like to believe. Prancing through the halls with a Farah Fawcett haircut, frosty lip gloss, and a sense of all-encompassing self-importance, Hilary Faye is out to save everyone in her own revoltingly chipper way.
Hilary's primary target is Cassandra (Eva Amurri), who is not only the schools' resident rebel, but is also Jewish. While Hilary tries to convert her, Hilary's cynical wheelchair-bound brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin), starts to fall in love with the bad girl. Meanwhile, Mary catches the eye of Patrick (Patrick Fugit), the new kid in school who's been in Latin America for several years skateboarding for Christ and also happens to be the son of the school's principal, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). Patrick has the look of a bad boy, but he's really a good-hearted guy. In effect, he's the film's epitome of a model Christian: Someone whose faith influences him to be a good model of human behavior, rather than a religious cliche-spouting automaton.
Saved! is certainly going to ruffle some feathers, but any Christian who truly understands what Christ stood for is going to see the film's underlying positive message beneath its mockery of Jesus freak stereotypes. In a sense, the entire film is a modern reworking of Christ's parable about the Pharisee who prayed in public by extolling his virtues where all could hear while the tax collector beat his chest and begged God for forgiveness of his sins. Not surprisingly, Christ told this story specifically to "some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else" (Luke 18:9).
In this sense, Hilary Faye and her ilk at the modern Pharisees, wearing their religious convictions like gaudy jewelry (sometimes literally, as in the case of the pins Hilary buys for her and her friends) and looking down their noses at anyone who isn't so beautifully adorned. Hilary takes supreme satisfaction in her conviction that she's going to heaven and others aren't, which is possibly the most un-Christian attitude imaginable. The characters who come out looking good in Saved!-primarily Mary, Patrick, Cassandra, Roland, and Dean-do so not because they aren't religious, but because they're self-aware. They realize that they have faults and flaws, and they go through life doing the best that they can. Hilary Faye, on the other hand, doesn't so much worship Jesus as she thinks she is Jesus, just as blameless and spot-free. And that, more than anything, is what infuriates others about certain kinds of fundamentalist Christians. It's not their religion, but the smug, self-serving manner in which they wield it.
Saved! gets all this right-almost dead-on. The screenplay by Dannelly and Michael Urban is smart in its understanding of how religion is a different part of people's day-to-day lives and the ways in which it can be used for both positive and negative purposes. Unfortunately, there are some stumbling blocks in the story, particularly a conceit in which one character frames several others for something they didn't do. While it serves the purposes of the narrative, I didn't for a second believe that this character would go to these extremes and then be so stupid about hiding the evidence. The budding relationship between Pastor Skip and Mary's mom (Mary-Louise Parker) is also a bit weak, although it allows for a nice moment near the end in which Pastor Skip is forced to loosen some of his rigidity for the sake of both himself and others.
Nevertheless, despite some flaws here and there, Saved! is a unique teen movie, one that reaches above and beyond the typical Hollywood cliches and dares to be about something. Granted, sometimes it's a little too blunt with its clear-cut message of inclusion and acceptance of those who might be different than you, but it's funny and original enough to sustain such overt proselytizing. It may be a bit preachy at times, but at least it's not Hilary Faye preachy.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © 2004 United Artists