Saved! (2004)

As someone with a strong interest in religion’s place in the public forum, in its nature and how it’s used and abused by people, especially in America, Saved! was a movie that did catch my interest in some respects. I was wary of it for the reason I’m wary of anything dealing with it–either it will be condescending toward religion or endlessly preachy, or maybe try and straddle the two and come out muddled and confused. At the same time, it had Jena Malone (who I’ve taken a passing interest in thanks to seeing Donnie Darko in 2002, thankfully before the hype skewed perceptions of it), Macaulay Culkin (who I had to see in his adulthood, just out of sheer curiosity) and Patrick Fugit (from Almost Famous and Dead Birds) and those actors all interested me. And even if it had wound up any of the irritating possibilities I knew it could, I’d have to see it out of a morbid curiosity.

Mary (Malone) is a student at American Eagle Christian High School. She is a member of the “Christian Jewels,” a Christian girls group at the school, which also includes lead singer Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) and Veronica (Elizabeth Thai), who is a refugee from Vietnam. Also around them consistently is Hilary’s disabled brother Roland (Culkin), who Hilary claims to take full responsibility for and love, when in truth she simply takes advantage of this image and resents him otherwise. The school is led by “Pastor Skip” (Martin Donovan), whose son Patrick (Fugit) has recently returned from missionary work and a Christian skateboarding tour. Mary’s boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) has just revealed his suspicion that he is gay to Mary, leading her to a mistaken vision of Jesus urging her to give her virginity to him to “save” him from this. As almost anyone who’s ever seen a teen movie can guess, yes, the P word results. And so failings of all sorts of fundamentalist Christian beliefs are occurring all throughout here, with even Skip dealing with the temptation to date Mary’s (single) mother Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker)–despite the fact that he is still married (refusing divorce as “not a part of God’s plan”). The leading catalyst for the film’s conflict (instead of being a mass of secret violations of principles they all intend to aspire to) is Cassandra (Eva Amurri), a Jewish student at the school who constantly blasphemes and violates these principles more than one at a time. Hilary Faye’s “Christian cred” is put in danger by her association with Mary and Roland, so she distances herself from the two and an escalating series of attempts to either annoy or get rid of the other group begins (get rid of as in expel, not kill–we’re not violating THAT principle!).

As a teen comedy, dialogue and performances are nothing to jump up and rave about, but they get the job done. Nothing is embarrassing (not even our pop-singing antagonist!), and it all works toward the film’s aims of poking holes in fundamentalist arrogance and hypocrisy. Characters are treated with a surprising respect, Roland being shown to be unable to walk, but suffering nothing else for this–no endless self-pity, though plenty of it from others that he has no need for, Cassandra hates her environment but not the people (at least, not to harmful level…), and Mary’s naïveté is not impermeable. Most surprising is that Hilary Faye seems genuinely well-intentioned and well-meaning in her disgustingly hypocritical and condescending actions–much like many of the actual folk of this variety. Intentions do not justify negative acts, but they can make them at least more palatable, and this balance is a pleasant surprise, as is the ending, that also does in a typical convention, where the antagonist usually gets their just desserts and our protagonists leave them in this mess and go on to their happy ending.

The issue I did have with the film, however, is that it attempted the straddle I referred to, in the final scenes. It seems pretty widely agreed (not unanimous, of course!) that the last third is the film’s weakness. It seems to be suggesting that things like homosexuality are okay–but not because they’re okay, only because “no one can possibly live up to all those rules.” Er, what? It seems to be suggesting that Dean is naturally homosexual–endorsing the genetic (or similarly ingrained) sourcing of this. Putting aside those that have debates about this (a group that does not include myself, for the record), if the film says this, then essentially suggests Dean has failed a Biblical rule–well, that’s totally ridiculous. If it is not a choice, then it is not a failure on his part as he didn’t “cause” it. It also seems to vaguely justify most anything that IS a choice as an inevitable failure here or there. The film’s heart is in the right place on this subject, trying to say that tolerance and acceptance are the most important virtues (a sentiment with which I agree), but seems to falter on actually claiming it. There’s an appreciable level of difficulty for some (like Skip) in accepting this, for which I’m glad–American History X‘s resolution of its characters’ racism always seemed ridiculously oversimplified and unacceptably unrealistic to me, where here we see that it isn’t an issue of, “Gosh, this is bad!” and then everyone agrees. Some have to continue to wrestle with this. It’s not a movie-killing problem, though, I should be clear about that. It’s enjoyable, especially some of the hilarious digs at fundamentalist illogic (which I’ll leave folk to see for themselves, because joke ruination has been a source of endless problems for comedies in the past few decades).

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