Like, Oh My God
Those seeking a movie about Christians with absolutely no flaying whatsoever can proceed directly to Brian Dannelly’s Saved! In this sweet comedy set at American Eagle Christian High School, Mary (Jena Malone) and Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) are best friends and faithful Christians—until Mary gets pregnant during a (physical) mission to save her gay boyfriend (Chad Faust). Hilary Faye turns her fundamentalist wrath on Mary, who befriends the school’s outsiders, including the scandalously Jewish (and goth-lite) Cassandra (Eva Amurri), Hilary Faye’s wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin), and Patrick (Patrick Fugit), son of the principal and mildly rebellious Christian skateboarder.
With all these students in crisis, grownup actors like Mary-Louise Parker and Martin Donovan don’t have much to do but crowd the movie with their subplots. Luckily, some kids stand out: Culkin is charming as Roland and the Hilary Faye character is inspired. The typical Hollywood high-school bitch goddess is some combination of conniving, backstabbing, and implicitly slutty, but Hilary Faye is a popularity queen as corrupt religious leader, always trying to out-pious her followers. Moore, more talented as an actress than her pop star past would have you believe, bites into this role with relish. Unfortunately, the character is also needlessly repetitive; while some of her lines are very funny (“I am full of Christ’s love!” she exhorts, while chucking a Bible at Mary), they eventually become shrill variations on one another.
This is typical of the film in general, which starts out with a series of considerable laughs before bogging itself down in too many characters and too few ideas about what to do with them. The film is set over the course of a school year, a timeline better suited to television than a 90-minute comedy. As seasons passes too quickly, we lose track of who Mary really is. In the beginning, she supplies cheerily naïve narration, and in the end… well, she’s the main character, so some kind of transformation into a more enlightened, accepting, and forgiving teenager is implied, but not shown. Malone, no longer playing the girlfriend of a troubled indie-movie loner, is convincing from scene to scene, but doesn’t have much in the way of specificity to work with.
This may be because Saved! doesn’t pay attention to religious detail like Kevin Smith’s more satiric (and more spiritual) Dogma (1999). For all of the latter’s supposed blasphemy, it was positively steeped in theology-Smith’s knowledge of Catholicism helped him skewer it. Even the most religious characters in Saved! mostly just mention Jesus a lot; there’s no reconciliation (or even much comic contrast) between Mary’s initially blissful Christian devotion and subsequent life as a teenage outcast. And although she’s a Christian girl named Mary who becomes unexpectedly pregnant, the screenplay treats the pregnancy more like a plot point than the cheeky launching pad it could have been. Instead, Mary is able to conceal her condition for a ridiculously long time.
While Mary’s journey stalls, there are some amusingly over-the-top jabs at evangelical beliefs, especially during a scene that can only be described as a drive-by exorcism. Cassandra’s disruption of a school assembly is also entertaining. But these amount to some funny sketches without a lot of thematic backbone. Even if that’s too much to ask of a high school comedy, Saved! also disappoints in failure to treat evangelicals with the mix of satire and affection granted to cheerleaders in Bring It On (2000). Christianity, like cheerleading, is familiar, loved and practiced by many, and mocked by many others. Some viewers may be troubled by the film’s ribbing of the religion’s immersion in pop culture; this strikes me as similar to a popular cheerleader complaining about being criticized by a more marginalized classmate; it’s not necessarily fair, but it takes certain self-centeredness for a member of a majority to claim persecution.
In any case, Saved! is not anti-Christian by any means, though it does indulge in the kind of secular politeness that keeps Christianity at a caricatured distance, maybe out of an understandable reluctance to appear as propaganda (of religious or anti-religious variety). Whatever the reasons, the film is missing a degree of commitment, a willingness to dive headlong into this culture. Neither the satire nor its warmth is fully formed.
As a teen comedy, the film is funnier and more thoughtful than most of its competition. But while it’s less glossy, Saved! isn’t nearly as witty (or laugh-out-loud funny) as Tina Fey and Mark Waters’ Mean Girls. Both movies come to conventional prom-centric conclusions, but Mean Girls approaches its bitch goddesses with a mixture of sociology and sarcasm that the more ambitious Saved! needs. Maybe teen movies are simply more comfortable worshipping at the altar of high school drama.