Saved!

SavedCast:
Jena Malone as Mary
Mandy Moore as Hilary Faye
Macaulay Culkin as Roland
Patrick Fugit as Patrick
Heather Matarazzo as Tia
Eva Amurri as Cassandra
Chad Faust as Dean
Elizabeth Thai as Veronica
Martin Donovan as Pastor Skip
Mary-Louise Parker as Lillian
Kett Turton as Mitch
Julia Arkos as PE Coach
Donna White as Trudy Mason

The Story:
Mary (Jena Malone) is a good Christian teen about to start her senior year at American Eagle Christian High School when her boyfriend Dean announces that he is gay. In a panic, she sleeps with him to try to “save” him but ends up getting pregnant in the bargain. When Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), the most popular girl in school, learns about Dean’s homosexuality, Mary is cast out of her clique, forcing her to band with a group of outsiders including Hillary Faye’s handicapped brother Roland (Culkin) and the school’s lone Jew, Cassandra.

Analysis:
These days, teen comedies are a dime a dozen, and even today’s teens may find some of them to be quite repugnant Hollywood fare. Saved! is darker high school fare like Heathers, Three O’Clock High or Alexander Payne’s Election, movies that built a cult following on their honest yet irreverent look at high school tenets. The twist that makes this different is that it explores the world of the Christian youth movement, inducing the comedy with some of the most irreverent religious humor since Kevin Smith’s Dogma.

The religious parody is pretty outrageous and a bit controversial, so whether you find it funny may depend on how serious you are about your religion. Much of the humor revolves around the pity that the students feel for Mary’s gay boyfriend and their desire to save him, yet it’s never very clear whether director Brian Dannelly is intentionally mocking the Christian philosophy or just trying to point out some of its possible flaws.

Either way, Saved! has one of the most amazing young casts of any recent movie. Of course, if their characters had anything to say, they’d all be going to hell for taking part in the movie, but the movie would not be quite the same without them. They don’t necessarily give memorable acting performances, but they bring an amazing spark of life to the characters and the story.

Jena Malone’s supporting roles in Donnie Darko and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys prove to be the perfect training ground for her role as Mary in Saved! She brings just the right amount of na├»ve innocence to the role, making her a likeable character that everyone can feel sympathy for. She’s not quite up to the task of carrying the movie, but she doesn’t really have to, because the rest of the cast is just as good.

Her polar opposite is Mandy Moore’s loathsome Hilary Faye, which takes Moore’s off-screen goody two-shoes image to its most hilarious extreme. Hilary Faye is on the par with Reese Witherspoon in Election, always meaning well but often letting her own agenda overpower her lord and savior’s. Because of the nature of the movie, there really aren’t any good or bad guys, but plenty of shades of grey.

Eva Amurri is the movie’s true breakout performer playing Cassandra, the ultra-cool and sassy Jewish bad girl who comes to American Eagle because no other school will take her. The face-offs between her and Hilary Faye make for the movie’s funniest scenes, and Welcome to the Dollhouse‘s Heather Mattarazo adds to the mix as Tia, the social outcast who schemes to take over Mary’s place in the Christian singing group. In his first decent role since Almost Famous, Patrick Fugit proves why he’s considered such a talent, although his part as the school pastor’s easy-going son is pretty minimal. Unfortunately, former child star Macaulay Culkin gives the weakest performance in the group. Besides looking far too old to play a high school teen, his delivery is fairly stiff and wooden. His relationship with Cassandra seems forced, and it’s the weakest part of the plot.

The only two grown-ups in the movie are also great. Television veteran Martin Donovan is hilarious as Pastor Chip, the far-too-hip school principal who tries to save his wayward students, and Mary Louise Parker is great as Mary’s hot-to-trot divorced mother. The romance between the two of them tends to overshadow the one that develops between their kids.

Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban’s sharp and clever script could probably pass off as a mainstream comedy if not for the touchy subject matter, and Dannelly is clearly the bastard child of John Hughes and Alexander Payne, finding the humor in some of the things that the characters take seriously. The movie is filled with lots of easter eggs that provide more than a few chuckles, like a bumper sticker reading “Jesus loves you. Everyone else thinks you’re an @$$hole” or the T-shirts advertising “Emmanuelle’s Shooting Range” where their motto is “an eye for an eye.”

Although the Christian jokes are run a bit ragged, they do finally get them out of their system, leaving a solid story about Mary’s struggles with her pregnancy and her learning to accept others in order to be accepted herself. The wonderful and climactic ending is well worthy of any John Hughes classic, with everyone getting what is coming to them and a strong message that pulls everything together.

The Bottom Line:
Although not everyone will appreciate the jokes, Saved! is a clever and very funny movie that amuses and entertains from beginning to end with its religious twist on classic high school comedies. It’s a fine showcase for the talent of Dannelly and his equally impressive young cast, many of whom should be getting more mainstream work in the future. There’s no doubt in my mind that Saved! is destined to become a much-loved cult classic. No pun intended.

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