A film review by Craig J. Koban

SAVED! jjj

2004, PG-13, 92 mins.

Hilary Faye: Mandy Moore / Mary: Jena Malone / Roland: Macauly Culkin / Patrick: Patrick Fugit / Pastor Skip: Martin Donovan / Lillian: Mary-Louise Parker / Cassandra: Eva Amurri / Dean: Chad Faust

Directed by Brian Dannelly /   Written by Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban

Question: Is it possible to make an anti-religion film that is also pro-faith?

Well, I think so.  Kevin Smith’s DOGMA knew that very well, and I think that Brain Dannelly’s new religious satire SAVED! understands and adheres to this principle as well.  Some would argue that taking cheap shots at fanaticism is relatively easy, and even more people have come out of SAVED! (well, the very few that went to see it theatrically) say it’s a vehemently anti-Christian film.  Yet, those who see SAVED! as an unmitigated attack on Christian belief kind of miss the point. 

This film is important (not to mention highly entertaining and devilishly funny…no pun intended) because if one stays with this film and watches it as a whole, it's not really ever saying that believing in God or Jesus is notoriously bad.  Moreover, it's not saying that one should abandon their respective faith.  The film is not an attack on Christianity; rather it’s a pointed satire that’s funny, subversive, sharp, and perceptive about religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.  It’s about how good people can be so propelled by their own religion to do the most heinous and immoral things, and all because they felt enlightened to do so.  The film is a good portrait of perverse intolerance, and stop and consider - wouldn’t Jesus have told some of these nutcases to honor and respect all misfits and those that are different instead of chastising them?  SAVED! does not throw out the Christian rulebook at all…it really honors it, in indirect and subtle ways. 

SAVED! has a sort of duplicitous tone.  On the one hand, it is saying that one’s faith can be a great source of inspiration to propel people to action.  On the other darker hand, it is also revealing that one’s faith can also be used as a weapon to impose one’s will on others with a blatant disrespect for the feelings or beliefs of others.  Some of the more strongly devote Christian characters are shown to be huge hypocrites, to be sure, but they are used to support the overall message of the film, as one character eloquently mentions – If God wanted us to be all the same, why did he make us so different?  In other words, the world is not black and white, as many believe the Bible says it is.  The brilliance of this film is that it does criticize some Christians, the ones that  feel that anyone that is not like them in anyway are evil and doomed to a life of damnation.  On the other hand, the film also has positive Christian characters, the one’s that are willing to see beyond another person's superficial differences and embrace them all the same.  In short, SAVED! stresses salvation through tolerance, not intolerance and bigotry. 

SAVED! is not altogether different from a considerable number of modern high school teen comedies.  Several of the required or obligatory elements are there and we’ve seen them countless times before.  We have the misfit girl of the school that is filled with self-doubt and is not liked by the school’s most popular and gorgeous woman, and we also have the hunky boy that both the misfit and the school beauty want, and we also have the inevitable prom night where everyone’s presence is felt and the plot spirals towards its final conclusion. 

In a nutshell and on these levels, SAVED! appears to have nothing fresh to offer us.  Yet, beyond these basic plot contrivances, it separates itself by really probing deep, penetrating issues that are problematic and don’t have easy answers.  The fact the it takes place at a super faithful Christian High School only further complicates matters.  The film is bolder and gutsier with its commentary and humor than modern studio pictures would have dared to be, and that’s where the film won me over completely.   It dares to pose the theory that, yes, you can have Christian values, but it’s how you use them that can have very un-Christian effects. 

Jena Malone (a gifted young actress) plays the lead role of Mary (a highly ironic name), who is a member of the Christian Jewels singing group.  She is the embodiment of Christianity.  She is in a Christian singing group, lives in a Christian home with her Christian mom and, yes, goes to a very, very Christian High School.  The school is run by the energetic and hip presence of Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), but he’s not your usual religious dean figure.  No, his school assemblies are more like outrageous pep rallies, where he flips on stage in the air (literally) and starts using near hip-hop lingo to help pump up his young crowd (like, “Who’s down with JC” and “Jesus is in the house!").  I’ll give Skippy points for one thing – he does not make worshipping God boring in the slightest.  As a matter of fact, this school might not be all that bad if it were not for the presence of the school’s teen queen Hilary Faye (a great performance by Mandy Moore, completely shedding her nice girl image).  If one were to look up religious fanatic in the dictionary, Hilary’s conniving little face would be there front and center.  He main role in life is to hunt down and let all know that if they are not “down with God”, then to hell with them!   

Anyway, Mary  seems to be leading a life of the spiritually enlightened at the beginning of the film.  She is proud of her faith, is happy and well adjusted for a youth of her age, and she is dating a very dreamy and very Christian boyfriend named Dean (Chad Faust…last name also ironic, no?).  In a very funny opening scene the two are in a backyard swimming pool and decide to play a little game of confession.  Well, Mary did not intend for this little innocent game to be as revealing as it is.  Chad convinces to her that he might be gay, which causes Mary to recoil in horror and hit head at the pool bottom and become unconscious.  She then reawakens underwater and thinks Jesus is saving her and talking to her (actually, its just a maintenance guy that looks a little like JC) and she has a spiritual awakening.  She believes that Jesus wants her to have sex with Dean to cure him of his abomination of being a homosexual because, well, only such an act of complete desperation could turn him over back to the light side of the force of Christianity and that Jesus, because she made such a sacrifice, will re-make her as a new virgin.  Yup, good plan! 

Unfortunately for Dean, his parents find out about his “fagotry”, as Hilary lovingly refers to it as at one point, and ship him out to Mercy House, a sort of Christian detox rehabilitation centre which, all too conveniently if you ask me, specializes in drug treatment, pre-marital pregnancy, and “degayification” like it was some sort of sick disease.  It's revealing that the screenplay does offer a Christian character, an invalid in a wheelchair played very effectively by Macauly Culkin, who sees through the very thin mask that covers the preposterousness of the Mercy House.  “Mercy House is not for the people that go there, but for the people that send them there,” Patrick explains, who is simultaneously having his own issues with his religion and person.  He not only comes to a head with Pastor Skip, but is soon falling for the new Jewish student named Cassandra (Eva Amurri), who pretty much does everything she can to be expelled, but is not because, well, she needs to be saved. 

The plot goes south for Mary soon, and she discovers that she is pregnant (talk about your double whammy – it’s bad enough to be having a kid before marriage, but for the father to be gay as well!?).  It seems that her plan to deprogram Dean did not work, and she begins to doubt her faith and her super Christian friends, which causes her to hang out with Patrick and Cassandra, the more liberal minded and rebellious of the school.  Well, this just causes  Hilary to go absolutely hog wild, and she engages on a witch hunt of spiritual saving that would be analogous to both guerrilla warfare and the trials of Joseph McCarthy.  At one point she is so wrapped up in her own mission to save what she considers completely lost souls, she even kidnaps Mary in order  to perform an exorcism on her.  When Mary breaks free from her and runs off, Hilary, in the film’s most painfully ironic and funny scene, throws her Bible at Mary and screams, “I am full of Jesus’ love,” to which Mary responds (looking at the Bible), “You can’t use this as a weapon!” 

That one little moment cuts to the real heart of this film.  If Christianity does in fact teach tolerance (as Jesus’ teachings obviously did), then it’s a really frustrating thing when young girls like Hilary are so blind-sided in their faith that they are not willing to accept those that are different.  She does not see Mary, Cassandra, and Patrick for being Christian souls that think and act differently, but rather as pathetic outsiders who are doomed without her aid.  The spiritual awakening that this film offers is that, yes, you can look to the Bible and your religion for inspiration, and that’s okay, but when you start using it as a way to compartmentalize people that are different, then it ironically helps foster a climate of bigotry that Jesus himself would have despised. 

That’s really what this film is encapsulating.  It's about characters that start to lose their faith but re-discover it in ways they did not think possible – by embracing that and those that are different.  The film is not capsizing Christianity, it's just saying, “C’mon, lighten up a bit…some souls that have incongruent ideas with your own may not need saving!”  One proud moment at the film’s conclusion shows Dean coming to his prom, but is quickly turned away by the angered Pastor Skip.  “The Bible is very clear cut about you,” he explains to Dean, to which he responds, “I think Jesus would want me to be here with everyone else.”  Well, wouldn’t he? 

SAVED! is a tough film that does not go for easy solutions, nor does it feel the need to find a safe way through the inherent controversial subject matter.  It’s a film that’s as sure of itself as any comedy or satire that I have seen lately, and it does not compromise on itself.  Is it anti-Christian?   No.   Is it anti-faith?  Hardly.  It’s an outspoken satire and comedy, one that has good performances and a keen and observant eye for some of the paradoxes of organized religion.  By paradox I mean that, in the fever of one’s faith, some are so busy trying to save souls that they see as deeply troubled because of their differences when, ironically, it is they themselves that need to be saved from their own fanatical intolerance of others.  If salvation is through Jesus, and Jesus said love and respect all, then surly the key to salvation is though tolerance, right?  Viewers who are too hasty to judge this film may miss this subtle message.  SAVED! is one of 2004's more perceptive, intelligent, and enlightening comedies.

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