Cynthia Fuchs, 4 June 2004
God only knows
"I've been born again my whole
life," says 17-year-old Mary (Jena Malone) at the start of Saved!
For her, such longstanding faith translates to self-confidence, a
sense of 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. So
startled by his confession, Mary hallucinates a visitation from
Jesus Himself, urging her to "save" poor Dean; she reads this
counsel as a mission, and plops herself upon 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,
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"). That her mother Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker) 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 dilemma mirrors that of the
kids, of course, 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. Also vying for Patrick's attention is Mary's "best
friend" and the film's anti-goody-two-shoes, Hilary Faye (Mandy
Moore, working against that sticky image established in A Walk to
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 (promotional
tagline: "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, for her
part, has some help 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 at
small-pound 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. Directed by Brian Dannelly,
and written by Dannelly and Michael Urban, 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
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.
PG - Parents
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.