'Saved!': A Divine Comedy
In Religious School, Queen Bees Find Lots to Pray On
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page C05
Mary's in trouble. The high school senior, a star in her class at an evangelical high school somewhere in America's heartland, is with child. And lo, there didn't appear a star in the east: The conception, while relatively innocent, was by no means immaculate. It turns out that Mary has gotten pregnant after sleeping with her boyfriend once, in a desperate attempt to "cure" him of his recently disclosed homosexuality.
These are the circumstances that propel "Saved!," a religious satire by first-time filmmaker Brian Dannelly. Together with co-writer Michael Urban, Dannelly has created a sort of born-again "Mean Girls" wherein the usual adolescent cliques, cruelties and anxieties about conformity are given an even higher charge than usual by the looming threat of burning in hell. In Mary's world, the queen bees aren't just the prettiest and most popular; they're quite literally holier than thou. And the misfits don't just sneak out for cigarettes and skip class -- they actually dare to express spiritual doubt in the face of near-constant proselytizing from their parents, teachers and peers.
Of course, a filmmaker looking for cheap shots need look no further than a religious high school for a barrel full of fish. And Dannelly takes nearly every shot he can, poking particular fun at the school's alpha girl, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), and its rah-rah principal (Martin Donovan), who tries to make God hip by saying things like, "Let's get our Christ on!" and "Let's kick it Jesus-style!"
Up until her current crisis, Mary (Jena Malone) went along with it all, joining Hilary Faye's singing group and earning her wings in student prayer groups and abortion clinic demonstrations. But now that she's on the other side of eternal judgment, she's suddenly more sympathetic with bad girl Cassandra, played with sleepy-eyed sarcasm by Eva Amurri, and Hilary Faye's cynical little brother, Roland (played by Macaulay Culkin, whose performance is a bit too reminiscent of his turn in "Party Monster"). When the two rebels see Mary leaving a family planning clinic, one suggests there's only one reason a Christian girl would be at Planned Parenthood. "Planting a pipe bomb?" the other responds.
Hypocrisy, militancy and self-righteous piety are all cheerfully skewered by Dannelly, who grew up attending religious schools and summer camps. (Urban grew up in a Baptist household in Oklahoma.) "Saved!" is clearly the filmmakers' way of processing the contradictions of those experiences, and as such it bears the unmistakable stamp of authenticity, even at its most outrageous. (Lest anyone think that "Saved!" is an anti-Christian screed, it does feature sympathetic characters, especially an appealing teen missionary played by Patrick Fugit, and Mary's slightly dotty but understanding mother, played by Mary-Louise Parker.)
"Saved!" reaches its climax in a contrived scene of madcap confusion at the school prom, where Mary must confront the forces that have vied for her soul throughout the movie. And, like her secular counterpart in "Mean Girls," Mary ultimately triumphs, leading her peers to a future of tolerance and forgiveness. ("Why would God make us all so different if He wanted us to be the same?" she asks.) By the time she faces her ultimate challenge, not in a manger but in a crowded hospital room surrounded by flawed and loving friends, it's finally possible for her and the audience to see this un-virgin birth as a truly blessed event.
Saved! (92 minutes, at the Loews Georgetown, Landmark Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated PG-13 for strong thematic issues involving teens -- sexual content, pregnancy, smoking and language.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Roland (Macaulay Culkin), left, Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and Mary (Jena Malone) try to keep it cool in the school cafeteria in "Saved!"
(Diyah Pera -- AP)