Saved! was portrayed in trailers as a teen drama that mocks Christian fundamentalism. Unfortunately, it's not much more than that.
The cast consists of several familiar faces: Devout Christian Mary (Jena Malone, from the far superior Donnie Darko) discovers that her ice-skating boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), is gay. When she has a vision that Jesus tells her to "help Dean," she takes that to mean she should "cure" him of his "affliction." So she does it the way any red-blooded teenager might, which is how she gets pregnant.
Of course, Dean can't possibly be cured, so he's shipped off to a…for lack of a better word, "de-gay-ification" camp. If you think this is a joke, Google "love in action" to see a real life example of such a camp.
In the mean time, Mary's in trouble. She attends a Christian fundamentalist school ("American Eagle") and is part of the Jewels, a girl gang led by the blonde and tanned Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Hilary takes obnoxious fundamentalism to new levels, hosting prayer groups for Dean and shunning anyone who doesn't adhere to her own agenda.
Unfortunately for Hilary, she has a disabled brother (Roland, played by Macaulay Culkin in his best role to date) who hates her. I don't mean normal dislike between siblings. In fact, it's difficult to believe they really are siblings. Roland hooks up with the only other rebel (and Jew) in the school, Cassandra (Eva Amurri). The inevitable ostracism that comes about from their differences binds Roland, Cassandra, and Mary together.
Plot points continue to spin out from the main thread, including Mary's crush on the principal/pastor's son (Patrick, played by…Patrick Fugit) and her mom's crush (the delectable Mary-Louise Parker) on the principal/pastor (Skip, played by Martin Donovan). These two side plots distract from the film's message. In fact, both crushes are patently unbelievable. The adult romance happens almost entirely off screen. Conversely, Patrick pursues Mary against every deterrent, including rejection, the fact that she's pregnant, and that a hot chick (Hilary) is always after him.
It's unfortunate that this film is considered so revolutionary, in that American media has a very difficult time openly criticizing Christian fundamentalism (especially these days). The concepts here have been handled with much better directing and a tighter plot in Donnie Darko, Napoleon Dynamite and American Beauty. Given that the plot bounces ahead from holiday to holiday, it's sometimes hard to follow what's going on.
The main villain, Hilary, is a one-dimensional caricature. It comes as no surprise when we discover that Hilary has a dark secret, but the secret's really lame. What's worse is that her brother betrays her in such a horrible fashion, acting decidedly un-brother-like.
On the other hand, the film shows Roland as a real teenager who happens to sit in a wheelchair. His character develops throughout the movie and he truly comes of age, realizing that he doesn't want to depend on anybody (including his girlfriend) if he wants to respect himself.
Throughout all the teen and adult angst is the persistent theme of Christianity being abused and used in ways that are borderline ridiculous. Or, it would be, if these schools didn't actually exist. But they do, so it's not quite as amusing and a little disconcerting. Can anyone use pseudo-speak words like "gangsta" and "for the Lord" in the same sentence without cracking up? If you think this is a joke, Google "Christian fundamentalist high school" to see a real life example.
Indeed, there's quite a bit of cult-like activity that takes place in the school, from the aforementioned hybridized speech to dozens of kids with their eyes closed, hands up, swaying to Christian rock. Which sounds suspiciously like regular rock only with the words changed. The requirement for good girls to lust after boys is their connection to Christian groups, not their actual morality; so it's okay to want the bandleader of Godflight or the pastor's son.
The director, Brian Dannelly, obviously has some issues he's working out (see the IMDB entry for his other film, He Bop). His style is a little too heavy-handed for my tastes, smashing the audience over the head with Christ symbolism, the likes of which I haven't seen since Mimic. The movie culminates in a prom, clumsily tying all the loose ends together in one neat, tidy package. And we're expected to believe that the pretty, popular girls don't have dates-oh what sweet, unrealistic revenge this movie is!
And that's the problem. Saved! is alternately too contrived or not vicious enough. The characters aren't all convincing in their sins or their zeal, and sometimes it just feels like the film is a moral parable masquerading as a movie; a dumbed down liberal version of a Jack Chik rant against the perils of fundamentalism. We get it: "Why would God make us all so different," asks Mary," if he wanted us to be the same?"
If the worst Saved! can point out is that Christian fundamentalism makes everyone boring, then that's a very mild chastisement indeed.