I honestly didn’t know much about Saved! when I sat down to watch it a couple of nights ago. I knew it had something to do with Christian kids and pregnancy, and that it had a surprisingly talented cast. Released in 2004, Saved! made a paltry $10 million worldwide (although that’s still twice its budget), and promptly disappeared into obscurity. Which is a goddamn tragedy, because it’s a funny, bitingly clever, scathingly snarky look at some of the extremes of Christian middle America and the pathological need of some people to not just be a better Christian, but the best Christian. Yet despite all that, it’s also a charming and sweet little fable about family and love. It’s like Jesus Camp mated with a Lifetime movie, and then was drugged with a heavy dose of irony.
Saved! takes place in a small town that’s particularly religious — the kids go to American Eagle Christian High School, the parents are obsessed with being the best Christian possible, with one of them even winning the dubious title of Number One Christian Interior Decorator. What I’m saying is, they’re big on the Jesus in this town. Mary (Jena Malone) is particularly fervent, along with her friends Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), Tia (Heather Matarazzo), and Hilary Faye’s wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin). Except that Mary’s life seems to take a series of peculiar, and entirely un-Christian turns — her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) comes out of the closet, and after a misguided effort to un-gay him, Mary ends up pregnant and Dean ends up sent to a deprogramming camp for gay Christian teens.
All of this ends up with Mary in a bit of a crisis of faith, struggling to understand her fears of ostracization and of being shunned by her peers and family, including her mother (Mary Louise Parker), the local Pastor (Martin Donovan), and his son who’s developed a crush on Mary (Patrick Fugit). It all adds up to a story that completely took me by surprise, because instead of Saved! being a snide, sarcastic condemnation of religious fundies (though it certainly has some sharp elements of criticism) it’s instead a heartfelt, honest look at how religion can be both a blessing and a curse to families and friends, so to speak.
The two extremes are represented perfectly in two of the supporting cast members — Mandy Moore’s Hilary Faye seems to be vying to become the Best Christian EVER — she’s organizing their prom, she holds prayer meetings, she sings (in a hilariously over-the-top fashion) at the school’s assemblies, and her father recently donated a 30-foot statue of Jesus himself to the school. The problem, of course, is that Hilary Faye is so obsessed with being the Best Christian that she pursues some decidedly un-Christian tactics to achieve her goal, including first trying to save Mary from her sins, and when that fails, reverting to a campaign of shaming and shunning.
The other side of the coin is Cassandra (Eva Armurri), the lone Jewish student, who smokes, drinks and fucks her way to notoriety. Cassandra is seen as the ultimate prize for the other girls — anyone who would be able to successfully convert her, or save her, would get a serious feather in the cap. Cassandra, of course, has no interest in being saved — though she does develop an unlikely interest in Hilary Faye’s brother Roland, and eventually an unlikelier friendship with Mary.
Saved! is a fascinating study in religion and school politics and power games, something that I’ve never really had to experience first hand. It’s incredibly effective at showing the dangers of becoming too engrossed in your beliefs — or perhaps more accurately, in expecting others to follow along with them, regardless of circumstance or personal experience. As is the case whenever one believes strongly in something, there’s the temptation to let it overtake your life and affect your relationships with others, and Saved! manages to demonstrate with humor and affection the consequences that go with that.
It’s heavy subject matter — teen pregnancy, the toxicity of young female relationships, sex, homosexuality, single motherhood — all wrapped within the dense framework of Christian fundamentalism and high school relationships. Yet director Brian Dannelly (who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Urban) handles it deftly and with a gentle sense of humor that isn’t nearly as harsh as I expected it to be. Mary’s crisis of faith doesn’t lead her to abandoning God, but instead to trying to find a better understanding, and to realize that there’s more to God and spirituality than what you read in a book or what you’re taught in a school. And while the ending almost slips into a melange of cheese and revelatory speeches (culminating in Mary’s near cringe-worthy line of “Why would God make us all so different if he wanted us to be the same?”), it stays the course and succeeds in being a smart, effective film that uses satire and comedy evenly, but not maliciously.
The film’s performances are strong throughout (with Moore and Armurri given the lion’s share of the memorable lines), but it’s carried by Malone, who gives a quietly emotional performance as Mary. She’s not without a biting sense of humor, but she also has a solemn sense of sadness and confusion that is portrayed effortlessly. Malone’s Mary is a good girl who’s made some dumb decisions, but is determined to gain a greater understanding from this new fate she’s forced to accept.
Saved! is a film I never expected to love — in fact, the main reason I watched it was due to my somewhat-embarrassing crush on Mandy Moore, and my own occasional penchant for religious mockery. But Saved! manages to do two remarkable things very effectively: It shows the inherent ridiculousness of aggressive, rabid organized religion, yet it also shows the inherent value and importance of religion in some people’s lives. It’s not a condemnation, nor does it seek to make a mockery of religion. Instead, Saved!, like Mary, seeks a better understanding — and if it cracks your shit up along the way, all the better.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.