Whether or not your automobile will be unmanned during the rapture known as the second coming of Macaulay Culkin, Brian Dannelly's Saved! is a film you'll want to like.
The previews tease us with Mandy Moore, in a fit of theocratic indignation, pelting Jena Malone with a Bible. It's hard to resist the appeal, especially in Colorado Springs where a certain strain of well-fed Christianity begs for skewering on a daily basis. Throw in the craven power politics of high school cliquishness and the maddening maelstrom of teen sexuality and the recipe for a noxious satire is born.
Sadly, that satire is not Saved!
Mary (Malone) is a good Christian girl living a good Christian life in the sort of prefab suburb that makes Stetson Hills seem downright rustic. All of this, however, begins to unravel when her boyfriend tells her he's gay. In a religious culture where it's plausible for Jesus to issue any number of assignments, Mary's mandate is perhaps not that unusual: By having sex with her boyfriend, Jesus has told her, Mary will save him from his homosexuality. Engage in one sin to correct another. (For more on this rationale, see the death penalty.)
This works for a few minutes until Mary discovers she's pregnant and that her boyfriend has been shipped off to "Mercy House," a deprogramming school for sexually deviant teens. Determined to conceal her pregnancy, Mary manages to make it through a year of high school, but not without incident.
When her best friend Hilary Faye (Moore) blabs her secret and then promptly organizes a group prayer on her gay boyfriend's behalf, Mary's apostasy is in the bag. Moral righteousness combined with social cunning can lead to all sorts of hypocrisy and no character exemplifies it better than Moore's. You've seen this girl before -- fastidious, precocious, as coy as Karl Rove and completely lacking in irony. Reese Witherspoon played her in Election, Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls. Insert a Bible and repeated Christian platitudes and you have Hilary Faye, and the essential tenet of what's up for ridicule.
Culkin begins even more helpless than in his Home Alone days as Faye's paraplegic younger brother. Giving an understated, somewhat wry performance, Culkin comes into his own with the help of American Eagle Christian School's" lone rebel (and lone Jew) Cassandra (Eva Amurri). Imagine the spawn of Arthur Fonzarelli and Grease's Rizzo and you'll get the prototype.
By virtue of narrative necessity, Hilary and Mary end up competing for the same boy, a skateboarding missionary named Patrick (Patrick Fugit) whose dad (Martin Donovan) happens to be the school's principal. I'll let you guess who wins this particular slugfest, and what happens at the prom.
There's a conversation to be had about recent filmic obsessions with mean girls. But this probably isn't the place for it. Though it's worth noting that the assumption implicit in this subgenre -- that boys aren't as craven about social climbing or as affected by social rank -- is just wrong. For more on that, see Kip Kinkel, Drew Golden, Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, et al.
What's wrong with Saved! is almost too obvious to mention, however this probably is the place for it: The film indulges in the exact same preachiness it condemns. The notion that teen-agers can doff their orthodoxies like last year's low riders is liberal fantasy on par with a Kucinich presidency. What's more, Dannelly's Christian teens are about as accurate a rendering of the real thing as OC is to Orange County 20-somethings. For satire to have any bite, what's put on the chopping block has to approximate the real thing. The more nuanced the representation, the more it stings.
While Saved! is saved by a few good gags, its "can't we all get along?" vision of Christianity is fit for campfire shibboleths: Someone's filming Lord, kumbaya/ Someone's filming, Lord, kumbaya ...
-- John Dicker