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Review: “Saved!” (2004)

American Eagle Christian School — could there be a more perfect name for the central location of a sharp-toothed satire about the highly sanctimonious? Doubtful. Somehow name-dropping an ace seller of artfully preppy attire signals the ride director Brian Dannelly intends to take us on. For “Saved!” is full of people (adults included) who devote themselves full-time to crafting perfect-looking Christian lives. Queen bee Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), in fact, could make praising Jesus while insulting someone’s outfit an Olympic sport. She’s a mean girl wearing a cross pin.

The thing that keeps “Saved!” from seeming wholly hateful and mean-spirited is the abundance of unfake people. The film’s heroine, the aptly named Mary (the supremely talented Jena Malone), possesses none of Hilary Faye’s venom. She’s simply a Christian girl enjoying her walk with God and her life. She has a considerate boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust); a hip-but-still-parental mom (Mary-Louise Parker); and a group of what she believes are kind-hearted friends (Moore, Elizabeth Thai). Then, during an innocent pool-side game of telling secrets, Dean lowers the boom: He’s gay. Mary bolts out of the water, knocking herself unconscious on the pool ladder, and has a vision of Jesus (actually the burly pool guy who saves her from drowning). She is to help Dean become ungay, and she knows only one way: sex. This leads to Mary staring down the barrel of a definitively positive pregnancy test. It’s a life interruption she didn’t account for, and it shakes her faith.

Although teen pregnancy is involved, “Saved!” does not head into Lifetime Movie Network territory. Considering it’s a film that revolves around teens, “Saved!” is unexpectedly witty, good-hearted and intricate. Writers Dannelly and Michael Urban do not pander; nor do they proselytize, either, despite the obvious parallels between Mary and the Virgin Mary. The writers are more interested into navigating the murky, perilous waters of high school life, which looks the same at every high school. The outsiders, not surprisingly, are the most interesting characters. Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the only Jew — called “a Jewish” — at American Eagle, is a foul-mouthed, hard-living smoker, but she also has a good heart. She accepts people as they are. Hilary Faye’s brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin, delightfully sardonic), confined to a wheelchair, hovers on the outskirts as well. New kid Patrick (Patrick Fugit), son of terminally clueless principal Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), is low-key about his faith, and he admires Mary for having the guts to question hers openly. These students, not Hilary Faye and her minions, are the ones who rally for Mary; they offer her support and kindness she doesn’t ask for but desperately needs. They also see through Hilary Faye’s phony piety to her bitter soul, and they help Mary see it, too.

As teen satires go, “Saved!” is not exactly “Heathers” or “Clueless,” but it doesn’t retract its fangs. Dannelly and Urban aren’t afraid to venture into potential blasphemy to drive home their points. For devout Christians, the most controversial scene, no doubt, is Mary’s showdown with the giant cross on a church building. Faced with an uncertain future, she curses at the cross, daring God to react. There is blasphemy in this scene, but that’s what makes it so powerful. It is a poignant depiction of one woman’s crisis of faith, her need for some kind of solution to the mess she’s gotten herself into. Both her anger and her demand for answers are near-universal. And certainly Malone’s performance lends immense depth to “Saved!” — not shocking considering Malone is a major talent. She is never melodramatic or whiny; she finds the right tone.

So do Parker and Donovan, invaluable character actors playing uncertain lovers. Amurri, an actress with crackerjack comedic timing, and Culkin serve up plenty of great one-liners, but there’s an edge of earnesty to both characters. Moore proves she can be nasty (“I am filled with Christ’s love!” she screams at Mary, hurling a Bible at her back) and take shots at her squeaky-clean image. For all the good-natured ribbing, though, it’s through Hilary Faye that we get the clearest message: The people who yell the loudest have darkness to hide.  

Grade: A-