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SAVED (PG-13) (2004)

United Artists

Official Site

Director: Brian Dannelly

Producers: Sandy Stern, Michael Stipe, Michael Ohoven, William Vince

Written by: Brian Dannelly, Michael Urban

Cast: Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Heather Matarazzo, Eva Amurri, Chad Faust


Given the increasing prominence of evangelical Christianity (and, for that matter, fundamentalist Islam) in American public life today, the arrival of a film that sensitively explores the role of conservative religion in the development of teenage morality is an exciting event. But that event has not yet occurred. Instead we have Saved, the first feature film from director Brian Dannelly. Saved is neither a sensitive consideration of an important and complex phenomenon nor a scathing indictment of it, but just a mawkish and occasionally charming paint-by-numbers teen comedy trapped inside a screeching deck-stacking polemic.

Mary (Malone) is looking forward to her senior year at American Eagle Christian High School. She and her best friend, the holier-than-thou Hilary Faye (Moore), play in a popular Christian rock band, and her boyfriend Dean (Faust) is a sweet, good-looking guy. With prom a mere nine months away, Mary has it all. But in the film’s first five minutes, Chad tells Mary that he thinks he’s gay. After receiving a vision from Jesus, Mary is determined to “help” Dean by showing him the benefits of heterosexuality. After their only stab at sex, Mary is upbeat in her confidence that Jesus will restore her virginity, but Dean is still gay and Mary is pregnant.

So two thousand years after Jesus, the Virgin Mary begins her senior year at a Christian high school. Stop me if I’m going too fast, but here’s the rub. One might think that in such a situation there would be no better place to be—but woe unto thee! These Christians are judgmental, moralizing, and lacking in compassion. Their leader, Pastor Skip (Donovan), tries to relate to his charges by using teen-friendly lingo (“Are you down with G-O-D?”), but encourages ostracism as the appropriate penalty for disobedience. Dean is shipped off to a deprogramming center and Mary quickly realizes that her best hope for emotional support can come only from a group of marginalized students: Hilary Faye’s cynical, wheelchair-riding (and atheist?) brother Roland (Culkin), Jewish “bad girl” Cassandra (Amurri), and Pastor Skip’s son Patrick (Fugit), Mary’s cute-boy love interest.

The budding romances between Mary and Patrick, and Cassandra and Roland, are sweet in an entirely predictable way, and Hilary Faye is such an over-the-top, unredeemable bitch that one cannot help desperately awaiting her comeuppance. But that movie has been made a thousand times: What makes Saved anything different than a cut-rate Breakfast Club is its commentary on fundamentalist Christianity, and here it fails miserably. In the film, Christians are naïve, hypocritical, selfish, and cruel, while the truly good people—those who are sincere, if troubled, and compassionate for the plight of others—all reject, in one way or another, the religious agenda of American Eagle High School. Perhaps ironically, Saved is preaching to the choir. It is Christian-bashing, pure and simple. The characters who are most devout in their Christianity—Hilary Faye, Pastor Skip and, to a lesser extent, Mary’s mother (Masterson, who actually looks a great deal like her film daughter)—are the most self-involved and least considerate; “redeemed” are all those who give up or substantially alter their faith.

For a film that so savagely ridicules its fundamentalist targets, Saved stands for precious little. Many of the film’s biggest laughs come from pointing out that the students at American Eagle are painfully sincere and quite naēve about the world outside of their fundamentalist lifestyle enclave. But surely there are bigger sins than that? In the film’s climactic speech (set, unsurprisingly, at the prom), Mary singles out the intolerance and stringent standards of the school when she exclaims that God would not have made us all so different if he wanted us all to be the same. But if we shouldn’t be intolerant of homosexuality or single-parent families, can’t we still be intolerant of, say, pedophilia or racism? The problem with the standards of evangelical Christianity is not that they are too high, but that they are wrong. But Saved is unwilling to take this stand, and opts instead for a fuzzy Unitarian Universalist message. (In a throwaway voiceover late in the film, Mary makes it clear that she still believes in God.) Saved tries to claim the moral high ground by ridiculing the most intimate beliefs of those outside the mainstream, and that’s a tough sell. Furthermore, whatever small amount of moral authority this film might have claimed is significantly diminished by the omnipresence of Coca-Cola™ products. It’s hard enough to make a halfway-decent teen comedy. Maybe Saved should have stopped there.

—Mike O’Connor

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