Girl Gang for Jesus
Mahh poosie is a hot pooosie.
—Cassandra (Eva Amurri), Saved!
We love you Valerie!
—Brian Dannelly and Sandy Stern, commentary track, Saved!
“The whole idea at the beginning was to sort of have this glorified idea of heaven,” says Brian Dannelly, director and co-writer of Saved!, while observing a mobile shot of a gorgeous, fakey-fake blue sky, headed down to earth and the angelic countenance of 17-year-old Mary (Jenna Malone). “I’ve been born again my whole life,” she says in voiceover, her eyes lifted heavenward. For her, such longstanding faith translates to knowing where she’s headed, always.
About to be a senior at American Eagle Christian High School, Mary’s feeling extra blessed to be playing keyboards with the Girl Gang for Jesus (better known as the Christian Jewels) and in virginal love with her beautiful boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust). As Saved! is a high school romantic comedy refitted to poke moderate fun at Christian evangelism, Mary will, in short order, endure a crisis involving sex. Specifically, it involves generous, loving sex, bestowed by Mary on Dean in an effort to dissuade him from believing he’s gay.
Her rationale is at once crazy and understandable: Dean outs himself as he and Mary are frolicking underwater in a swimming pool. Startled by his confession, Mary hallucinates a visitation from Jesus Himself, urging her to “save” poor Dean; she reads this counsel as a mission, after careful contemplation: “How could my boyfriend be gay? He’s, like, the best Christian I know… Why had he been stricken with such a spiritually toxic condition?” Days later, she plops herself on poor Dean, who rushes to hide his gay porn mag when she arrives unannounced in his bedroom, then goes through the proper motions. When Dean can’t give up his magazines after all, his parents send him off to a Christian “treatment facility,” and Mary faces senior year without her boy and usual self-confidence. And pregnant.
As Dannelly, producer Sandy Stern, and co-writer Michael Urban recall during their joint commentary track for MGM’s DVD of Saved!, Mary goes on to lose her sense of being in tune with the rest of the world, replacing it with a more profound trust in the people around her. “I think we’ve all had those moments in our lives where we question,” says Dannelly. At which point Urban notes the (then-brewing) controversy about the film, and you watch Mary standing before a giant cross, again gazing upward, but this time, her eyes filled with tears.
After seeing a Lifetime movie starring Valerie Bertinelli (who is adored by all the commentary track participants), Mary is partly heartened and partly horrified. Her confusion is reflected everywhere in the film, in the school’s fountain, mirrors, and windows, but also in her increasingly wavering relationships, with her young mother Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker), and her soon-to-be-ex-best-friend and the film’s excellent anti-goody-two-shoes, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), a character Dannelly describes as “really believing she’s doing the right thing.” Moore and Malone share a second commentary track for the DVD, in which they remember specific shooting experiences, and think through their characters’ separate plights: Mary’s increasing independence and Hilary Faye’s increasing uncertainty over her own “personal relationship with Jesus Christ Our Lord.” Their reflections suggest not only their own friendship, but these talented performers’ capacities for imagining their ways into other lives.
In addition, the DVD includes a featurette called “Heaven Help Us” (sort of making-of, sort of promotion-lite); a blooper reel; the usual deleted and extended scenes (an alternate opening, in which Hilary Faye and Mary share a Diet Coke and discuss football players); and another section of deleted scenes, called “Revelations,” which show maybe-alternative character trajectories. The commentary tracks are easily the DVD’s most satisfying extras, even though the guys tend to repeat themselves (“People say the film is over the top,” “Mary’s on this journey”).
Mary must find her way in a world that remains willfully ignorant of her dilemma, because to admit its possibility would be to disrupt the order of American Eagle. She takes the obvious decision, to hide her swelling belly under increasingly big sweaters, several adorned with Christmas or Easter decals, as the film is clunkily organized around “holidays” (“Lucky for me,” Mary says, “Pregnancy was about as common as the flesh-eating virus; no one knew what it was”). Lillian takes a practical approach to child-rearing; as she tells Mary, “Having a child is like owning a car, says mom. I can change the oil, fill the gas tank, take it to a carwash, but if the carburetor broke, I wouldn’t have a clue how to fix it.”
That she doesn’t pick up on her daughter’s changing body appears to be the result of her own distraction, an illicit (unmarried) relationship with the high school’s high-on-Jesus principal, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). (He’s introduced literally back-flipping onto the auditorium stage, pumping his crowd: “Are you down with the G.O.D.?”) Skip and Lillian feel guilty about their mutual desire, but they also can’t quite figure out how come it feels so good. Their quandary mirrors that of the kids, as poor Mary embodies so sweetly, so earnestly, and so intelligently. “Why would God make everyone different if He wanted us all to be the same?” she asks, and even the baby evangelicals are beginning to feel her pain. Toward the end of resolving this dilemma within 92 minutes, for Mary anyway, Saved! provides her with an appropriate second object of affection, Pastor Skip’s skateboarding champion son Patrick (Patrick Fugit).
As he identifies Mary as a principled outcast amongst the less than self-reliant lambs, Patrick takes it upon himself to “save” her, by way of asking her on a date. Hilary Faye also develops an interest in Patrick. Though she premises her Miss Popularity title on frequent and very visible declarations of faith, Hilary Faye is as mean a girl as ever walked a high school movie hallway. And the movie uses her to its best advantage: at once supercilious and insecure, she’s the poster girl for self-serving Christianity. And indeed, the film has part of its most fun with her. “I’m saving myself until marriage,” she announces during the girls’ target practice at the Emmanuel Shooting Range (whose promotional tagline is “An Eye for an Eye”), “And I’ll use force if necessary.”
The other students ritually quake at such pronouncements, and Hilary Faye knows how to use her clout to get what she wants; among her most dedicated acolytes are Tia (Heather Matarazzo) and Veronica (Elizabeth Thai), both dyeing their hair blond to match their idol’s, and pleased when Mary’s moved “out” of favor as they can scurry in to fill her spot. Mary is aided in her resistance from Hilary Faye’s brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin). In a wheelchair since a childhood accident (he reports that Hilary Faye calls it a “miracle” that she found him at the base of the tree from which he fell), Roland is as cynical as his sister is pious (that is, both front at least a little). Though she has purchased and drives a van equipped to accommodate Roland’s chair, she resents him mightily, asking why he has to “make people feel so awkward about your differently abledness.” While she speaks the language, she hasn’t quite grasped the concept.
Where Hilary Faye sees a chance to grasp power in each one of American Eagle’s religious spectacles, Roland tends to observe from a distance. During one of these moments—he’s escaped the auditorium for a breather outside—he meets the new girl, Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the film’s other beam of energetic light school’s only “Jewess,” fond of dramatic goth makeup, cigarettes, and tucking up her skirt. Struck by one another’s perceptible outsiderness, Roland and Cassandra start a romance, sexy, smart, and among the film’s most compelling relationships; she brings out his rebelliousness, even outfits her car so he can drive it, and he offers her devotion.
Rather like Roland, Saved! is stuck at the level of observation. The film’s comedy is restrained, more concerned with referencing the high school movie clichés (the girl spats, the fumbling adults, the ridicule of airheaded hotties and elevation of thoughtful dissenters, the diva’s comeuppance, and, of course, the prom showdown) that it loses track of its initial focus on this question of what it means to be “saved.”
Or maybe more specifically, what it means to be in the business of saving, which has preoccupied institutional religion forever (if only to be financially solvent). That religion as a business has recently discovered the youth market is hardly surprising, and neither is it that the high school movie formula combines with this particular object of parody so easily. The fears that make kids want to be saved are everywhere on display in Saved!: absent parents, sexual mythologies, demonization of others, isolation and alienation. That the movie does offer some viable alternatives to spiritual and moral conformity—in the shapes of families, in sexual preference and differently abled sex—is to its credit. That it does so within a nice-girls win, bad-girls suffer formula, is less imaginative.