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Saved!
4-5stars.gif
Directed by Brian Dannelly.
Starring Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Heather Matarazzo, Eva Amurri, Martin Donovan and Mary-Louise Parker.

The unholy suckiness that Christian rock generally traffics in is entirely too easy to make fun of, so it's refreshing that Saved! takes the high road and allows its soundtrack to be kind of good. Besides some seemingly authentic (but most likely not) Christian rock, it features a few secular songs with the G- or J-words in them, such as Santana's "Jesus Is Just Alright" and, believe it or not, the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" covered by Mandy Moore and Michael Stipe, who also served as producer. Similarly, the amount of sincerity and respect with which co-writer and director Brian Dannelly treats not only the film's soundtrack, but also its genre, its characters and its intended audience is also refreshing -- so much so that the fact that Saved! is a damned funny movie seems almost like a bonus.

In Saved!, an American Eagle Christian High School student named Mary (Jena Malone) who gets impregnated by her gay boyfriend (Chad Faust) and then proceeds to hide it from her friends and family over the course of the school year. The story occasionally wanders away from Mary and her pregnancy to concentrate on her mother's flirtation with married-but-separated Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan) and wheelchair-bound Roland's (Macaulay Culkin) blossoming relationship with the school's Jewish hellion (Eva Amurri), as well as throw-away bits like Mary and her mother Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker) seeing a TV promo for a cancer movie starring Valerie Bertinelli (as herself) on Lifetime. (Mary-Louise Parker's "Oh, that looks good" is hilariously sincere.) Somewhere in there, the filmmakers manage to squeeze in Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous), who provides a likeable enough romantic interest as a straight boy (Pastor Skip's son, naturally) who Mary becomes interested in through the course of the school year, despite the obvious weirdness. The various threads all come together on prom night, of course, because this is still a high school movie after all; that's how it's supposed to happen.

Saved! never seriously questions faith itself any more than your typical episode of "7th Heaven," and it's simply misguided to expect it to -- you don't walk into a Christian bookstore and look for Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian. Decidedly more on the level of, say, Mean Girls (minus the PG-13 T&A) than Election as high school satires go, Saved! is a surprisingly intelligent and even occasionally subtle movie that is, in every respect except for its Christian school setting, a by-the-numbers teen comedy: relatively flat characters, derivative plot and all. But I don't mean that in a bad way; in this case, the flatness of the characters and predictable plot, help in some ways to underscore the film's general message, which is clearly targeted much more towards believers than non-believers. Saved! is a terrific example of how the use of stereotypical characters and stock plots can be effectively handled (at least when the stereotypes used are at least somewhat rooted in reality, and from my own experiences being a part of a Christian youth group in my early teens, Saved!'s "Jesus freak" characters are definitely not wholly fiction; in fact, I would say the self-righteousness and condescension depicted in Saved! is a little mild compared to the beliefs of most evangelical Christians). The characters' Christianity is occasionally played for laughs (yes, there is a "missionary position" joke in the movie) but their Christianity itself is never the butt of a joke, even though some specific few of their more misguided beliefs are fair game, most prominently their attitudes towards other religions ("heathens") and homosexuality ("faggotry").

The film has been chastized by some critics for making fun of its Christian characters, and by other critics for not making fun of them enough; both of these viewpoints are way off-base, because although hardcore Bible thumpers won't agree with me, Saved! is, at its heart, a Christian film. What Saved! isn't, though, is a fundamentalist Christian film. It recognizes, as Brian Dannelly stated in a recent interview with the Seattle Post Intelligencer, that "evangelical conservatives [have] hijacked the term 'Christian,'" and that there are some fundamental flaws in their ideas of Christ and of Christianity (not to mention the world around them). But despite the movie-butter-induced visions that other reviewers have had that lead them to believe otherwise, Saved! absolutely does not pass judgment on its characters nor does it hold them up for ridicule the way some close-minded believers have said (and some close-minded non-believers would prefer). It only recognizes that they have a little room for improvement. Every character, even the movie's closest thing to a villain, Hilary Faye, is implicitly forgiven and redeemed at the end, because that's what Christianity is all about, not cynicism or hate -- at its roots, true Christianity, on a personal level, is just about becoming a better person.

Saved! is playing at Pipers Alley, River East 21 and the Century 12/CineArts 6 in Evanston. Incidentally, Michael O'Sullivan's review of Saved! for the Washington Post is quite possibly the most ridiculous review I've read.

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Comments

dan / June 15, 2004 10:07 AM

I'm gonna have to respectfully disagree on this one. I caught Saved! at a matinee show yesterday, and while the performances were good (Jena Malone as the lead, and Eva Amurri as the rebel especially), I thought the script was pretty clunky and bone-headed throughout. Making fun of Christian fundamentalism is like shooting fish in a barrel, and this movie uses an elephant-sized shotgun to do it over and over and over again. I agree that this is only a teen movie and a satire, so some ham-fisted stereotypes are in order. However, when the characters are divided into two distinct categories: the fundamentalists and those wrestling with their faith, (i.e. the good and the bad), and one of the "lessons" at the end of the movie is that "everything isn't black and white" when it comes to faith, there is some deep, unintentional irony going on.

I think what bothered me the most about this movie was being in a theater, and hearing the audience laugh throughout the scene where Mary, the pregnant, teenage Christian returns from Planned Parenthood crying and staring at the cross, waiting for an answer. I wasn't really sure if this was meant to be funny, but when you lampoon the character's value system for the three or four scenes preceding it, it's hard to turn around and make her sympathetic in the next shot.

Satires like "Election," "Heathers" and even "Fargo" have ridiculous characters that the audience laughs at, but with those films you get a sense that the filmmakers still genuinely care about the characters. With Saved! though, the satire is slathered on so thick, that it is really hard to tell.

 

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