Robin CliffordIn the summer before her Senior year at a Baptist high school, Mary (Jena Malone, "The United States of Leland") learns a horrifying secret from her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) - he thinks he's gay. A bonk on the head in the swimming pool convinces her she's had a vision of Jesus who gives her a mission, and so Mary gives Dean her virginity in order that he might be "Saved!"
Cowriter (with Michael Urban)/director Brian Dannelly picks an easy target with self righteous holy rollers, but his heavenly cast and funny dialogue make this one a fun ride.
Mary starts the school year with a double barrelled jolt. First, best friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore, "Chasing Liberty") 'pins' her as a Christian Jewel, a morality police squad masquerading as a do-gooders. Mary's happy high is then dashed when Dean's parents inform her that he's been sent to Mercy House to be cured of his homosexuality. Mary makes Hilary Faye promise to keep this secret, but when Mary begins suffering morning sickness, she tells no one. Her coverup is seen through by class outcast Cassandra (Eva Amurri, "The Banger Sisters"), a Jewish girl thrown out of every other school because of her wild ways. When Mary begins hanging out with Cass and Roland (Macaulay Culkin, "Party Monster"), Hilary Faye's wheelchair bound brother, she's booted from the Jewels who then try to bring her back to the path of righteousness with the guidance of Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan, "The United States of Leland"). Meanwhile Skip's son Patrick (Patrick Fugit, "White Oleander"), who is being relentlessly pursued by Hilary Faye, tries to romance Mary while Mary's mom Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker, "Red Dragon") pursues the pastor.
Dannelly begins right away with the obvious, delivering gags like Mary denying Dean's sexual orientation while gazing at his picture - as a figure skater. It's Jena Malone's innocence of delivery that puts the joke over, just as her earnest 'I hope it's cancer, I hope it's cancer' incantation is funny when it follows a scene of Mary and mom watching Valerie Bertinelli on Oxygen as a cancer patient who thought her symptoms indicated pregnancy. Mandy Moore shows her range playing her goody two shoes image against itself, although she is a bit stifled by her character's inherent cliche. Still, her self-centered villainy is reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick and she gets to use her heavenly pipes performing Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows." Perhaps most enjoyable are Eva Amurri, whose 'speaking in tongues' during Pastor's Skip's sermon is hilariously rebellious and Macaulay Culkin in his best ever performance as the droll social commentator who falls for her. Culkin's delivery slam dunks some of the film's funniest lines. Fugit displays the same unsickly sweetness that made him such a pleasure in "Almost Famous."
While self righteous morality is easy to skewer, Dannelly adds irony by making his group of Christians suburban soccer types who are never challenged by life's hardships. More than once, Hilary Faye barely masks her pique at losing out on a gold Lexus for the handicap-equipped SUV she's been saddled with and prayer meetings are used for social scheming rather than be wasted on the truly needy. In fact, it should be noted that Mary's dilemma was exacerbated by the type of wealth that commands the presence of a pool boy.
Dannelly may merely skin the surface of teen comedy with "Saved!," but he shows a knack for well placed punch lines and creating a well-oiled ensemble.
Mary (Jena Malone) is one of the bright young stars at the American Eagle Christian School located somewhere in the Bible Belt. She believes wholeheartedly in Jesus, even when her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) proclaims to her, “I think I’m gay!” She has a vision of Christ who tells her that she will be cleansed if she sacrifices her virginity to push Dean going down the straight (literally) and narrow path. The plan backfires when she learns that she is pregnant and Mary becomes the one who must be “Saved!”
Freshman feature helmer/writer Brian Dannelly may not have hit one out of the park with his indictment of the fanaticism of the Christian right in “Saved!” but he certainly gets on base his first time at bat in the big leagues. His debut work isn’t a masterpiece, by any means, but it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking work that wears its heart on its shirtsleeve as it eschews the mindless acceptance of the religious right and promotes the love and understanding of genuine faith.
Mary truly believes that Jesus is herr savior as she attends her pious high school and belongs to the Christian Jewels, a religious pop band, led by the school’s queen bee and most ardent fanatic, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). This, Mary’s senior year, looks to be the best yet – until Dean tells her he is gay. They are in a pool at the time of his confession and Mary, shocked by the revelation, bumps her head and is knocked out. A quick thinking maintenance guy dives in to rescue her and, in her muddled state of mind, believes he is Jesus, telling her that she must do whatever she can to save her boyfriend from damnation. Anything.
The young Christian is troubled over what Jesus meant but eventually decides that Christ will absolve her of any sins as long as it is in the Christian cause. If it means sacrificing her chastity to save Dean’s soul from eternal damnation for his gayness then, so be it. She gives herself to him and is smugly satisfied that she has done the right thing and saved Dean from the fires of Hell. Until she learns two things: Dean’s parents discover his secret and ship him off to Mercy House, a Christian right rehab center that will put him through ungayification, and, she is pregnant.
The latter fact will ruin her at the American Eagle school and Mary tries to hide her condition from everyone, including her mother (Mary Louise Parker). She almost succeeds but a couple of the students, Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the lone Jewish student in the school, and wheelchair bound Roland (Macaulay Culkin) (who happens to be Hilary Faye’s brother), figure out her plight and befriend the pregnant girl. Mary’s goal is to carry the baby to term.
Helmer Dannelly has come under fire from the Christian Fundamentalist followers for his stance on tolerance and faith versus prejudice and fanatical zealotry. He does this through the innocent and very Christian (in the real sense of the word) eyes of teenage Mary. Her naïve belief that doing good is the same as doing right, as dictated by her unforgiving Christian environment, forces the girl to extreme measures, like trying to hide her pregnancy. When the school’s nonconformist rebels, Cassandra and Roland, figure out her secret, Mary soon realizes that there is much more to faith than the “Are you with Jesus!?” bible-thumping. Love, understanding, friendship, tolerance and kindness are the real things that count, not blind faith.
Jena Malone has big shoes to fill as the focal character in “Saved!” The young actress does a fine as the film’s anchor and is enormously helped in her task by the terrific supporting cast. Malone, with her sweet face, and a slight case of acne, rings as a real, good kid who is trying to work out her own mistakes. Her new-found understanding is opposed by Hilary Faye and Mandy Moore does a good bitch queen whose “faith” is simply a mask for her ambitions. Moore plays opposite her own real-life Christian and Hilary Faye represents those who mistake earthly power and control of people’s faith for belief in God and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Macaulay Culkin shows that there is life after “Home Alone.” People forget his turn, at age 13, to being the bad guy in “The Good Son” and he has received acclaim for his recent performance in “Party Monster.” The former child superstar is a natural as Roland. He is resented by his sister – she couldn’t get her Lexus because Roland needs a wheelchair accessible vehicle (a van, no less) – because Hilary Faye has to ferry him around like a servant. When Cassandra arrives on the seen, not caring a whit about his condition, he is like a caterpillar turned into a butterfly. Roland changes from resigned acceptance of his handicap to understanding that the real handicap is in the mind. Helping this metamorphosis is the performance by Eva Amurri as Cassandra. Daughter of Susan Sarandon, the young actress positively sparkles as the outsider – she is a Jew, after all, in the heartland of Christian Fundamentalism – who is at total ease with herself. This confidence is palpable and that Roland would warm to her is perfectly believable. There is a nice chemistry between these two.
Patrick Fugit, the young find in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” has matured considerably in a few short years and comes across nicely as Patrick, the new kid in town who is drawn to Mary and is also the object of attention by Hilary Faye. Patrick has the compassion and understanding, almost fully adult, to show tolerance to Hilary Faye’s intolerance. His stand-by-your-woman relation with Mary is maturely handled, too. Heather Matarrazo is a good addition as Tia, the sad-sack wannabe whose sole ambition in her young life is to be accepted as a member of Hilary Faye’s posse, the Christian Jewels.
There aren’t many adults of consequence in “Saved!” but there are two notable exceptions. Martin Donovan, as the school’s headmaster, Pastor Skip, steals the show with his hip, youthful demeanor and his “Lord Jesus is in the house! Who is down with the G-O-D?!” pseudo street talk make for some very funny satire. The actor show obvious enthusiasm and it comes out nicely in Pastor Skip. Mary-Louise Parker, as Mary’s mom, Lillian, is a more pragmatic Christian and a single mother. In a small role, the actress gives dimension as we sense, rather than be told, that the past she has drawn is false. In the end, the genuine love of a mother for her daughter comes bursting to the surface.
“Saved!” is a message movie that might/will offend those less than tolerant to others’ beliefs but has its heart and mind in the right place – and it does it with wit and humor. I give it a B+.
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