Written and Directed by Brian Dannelly
Written by Michael Urban
– Jena Malone as Mary
– Mandy Moore as Hilary Faye
– Macaulay Culkin as Roland
– Patrick Fugit as Patrick
Matt Cale doesn’t want your help…
Saved! pokes fun at the religious in a way that leaves religion itself unscathed, which is not only unacceptable, but dishonest. It gives us enough satire to tease us into believing that it will blast Christianity with both barrels, only to pull back and offer the comforting idea that it’s okay to love Jesus since only the zealots and hypocrites are to blame. As long as people live as Jesus intended (full of love, grace, and humility, apparently), then spirituality is a cool thing indeed, even fulfilling. Due to this escape clause in its message, Saved! is only a partial success, taking a pretty daring premise and pissing it away in a feast of good tidings, acceptance, and warmth. It is a firm, unshakable truth that nothing that emanates from American pop culture will ever blast religion as a concept, preferring instead to demonize particular leaders, usually those who get caught with prostitutes or steal money from gullible followers. And while I will always applaud even half-hearted attacks on the Christian behemoth that threatens to swallow what remains of thinking America, it continues to sadden me that filmmakers lack the courage to take their vision to its logical conclusion.
Saved! involves Mary (Jena Malone), a good girl who attends American Eagle Christian High School, and her fateful senior year as she deals with an unwanted pregnancy. Matters are complicated by the fact that the father of her child is gay, and is being “re-educated” (or “de-gayified,” as the movie says) at Mercy House, a camp that warns young men and women about the sins of the flesh. Mary’s pregnancy results from a single act of “mercy,” where she believes she is acting on orders from Jesus to help bring her boyfriend back from the gay lifestyle. So far, so good. We also meet Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), a nasty little wench who uses her “love” of Jesus to create her own private fiefdom of morality, goodness, and power. She is the head of a singing group called the “Christian Jewels,” and she rules over her inner circle like a vulture waiting for the first sign of weakness. Needless to say, Hilary’s inevitable transformation is the heart of this film, for she represents not Christianity itself, but its “perversion” — the unfortunate result of twisting the word of God into weapons of judgment and hate. Again, as refreshing as it is to watch Jesus freaks receive the lash, such a character absolves the rest of us from its commentary. Since most religious folk would never admit to being liars, thieves, and raging assholes, they can nod in agreement as the “bad elements” are purged, leaving only the glory of the true savior. It’s as ridiculous as saying that without Hitler, the Nazis would not have been half bad; tolerable even. They say a group is never to be judged by its worst members. But what if the whole fucking lot is rotten from head to toe? Saved! doesn’t even consider that possibility.
There’s also the “rebel” character, Cassandra (Eva Amurri), who, as a Jew, is out of place in the Christian school, but is necessary because she brings enlightenment and a sense of play to several of the stuffy characters. Admittedly, she does have several funny lines and scenes, but by the end, we realize that she’s only here to be a voice of tolerance. Macaulay Culkin is also on board as Roland, a wheelchair-bound cynic who hooks up with Cassandra and gives his sister Hilary unending grief. He too has a funny line or two, but (of course) also acts as a symbol for “big tent” Christianity that is pushed like crack in the final scenes. More about that final scene. Mary has her baby, which pleases the pro-life forces, who would no doubt picket a film even hinting at the possibility of an abortion, let alone a teenage abortion, and this event (which is endorsed wholeheartedly by the filmmakers, oblivious to the fact that it is both irresponsible and a knife in the heart of any future for this young dipshit girl) allows us to see a picture of togetherness; cripple, gay, rebellious, and pious. Mary’s voiceover also made me gag, as she informs us that there simply must be a higher power, because it’s unimaginable to think that “all this” is simply random and devoid of meaning. And she admits, we’re all trying to figure this crazy, mixed-up world out for ourselves, which is her way of saying that we still need God to get us through.
In the end, any shots fired at narrow-minded, ignorant Christians are shots wasted, largely because thinking people everywhere long ago came to the conclusion that a belief in Jesus Christ is the first and most lasting sign of a deep, irreversible mental illness. Even I’m reluctant to kick a dog when it’s down. Religion itself — that large, seemingly endless collection of ticks, superstitions, rituals, and teachings — is the real enemy, and few are willing to head out for that territory, at least not without a backup plan. Saved! has such a plan tucked under its arm, ready to unfurl the moment the audience gets restless with too much anti-Christian sentiment. Yes, it is dead-on to portray the Christian school as an Orwellian nightmare of platitudes, distortions, and assemblies, where Jesus is made hip and relevant for the youngsters (“You down with G-O-D?”, the principal asks). And yes, it was rather humorous to watch an instructor attempt to teach sex-ed with the “naughty parts” airbrushed out. These things are necessary.
But in order to bring our society to the point where it is even remotely tolerable, we must make a clean sweep. There are no extreme Christians, Christianity itself is extreme. There are no individuals who are sanctimonious and deluded; all are afflicted because they have made a choice to turn their backs on reason. There can be no hope that we will embrace the real message of Jesus and live as one happy family, because the seeds of religion itself — that which pushed mankind on the path to faith — are antithetical to interdependency and collective well-being. The very impulse that leads people to religion is one of exclusivity; that by living according to particular rules and regulations, one will find favor with the Almighty while others, alas, will not. After all, why believe in Jesus Christ unless that belief ensures that others who do not believe will be left out of the party? If anyone can get in, why waste my time with all this shit? But we know all this. At least we should. But Saved! is a product of a world where we have yet to completely shed our savage past; a past fearful of embracing the void. The void that comes with growing up.