★★★ / ★★★★
As a pious Christian, Mary (Jena Malone) has worked hard to make Jesus the center of her life. Up until the summer before senior year of high school, everything has gone according to plan. But when her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), confesses to her that he might be gay, she feels an urgent need to rid of his “toxic affliction.” She reasons that if she gives his virginity to Dean, he will be cured of his homosexuality. Soon, Mary learns that she is pregnant and feels she must hide it from her mom (Mary-Louise Parker) and classmates because gays, drug addicts, and pregnant girls are sent to a “treatment center.”
Written by Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban, “Saved!” exposes some of the hypocrisies of a specific organized religion within the confines of a high school but it is not exactly an indictment. By withholding from being a full-on satire, it turns into a more accessible picture. In my opinion, the movie can be enjoyed divorced from one’s beliefs so long as one is not blind to or can appreciate good irony.
Instead of having only Christians and atheists, the picture consists of a spectrum of characters, from those who take every word of the bible to heart, like the imperious Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), those who use religion as a guide but not a rule, like the new student named Patrick (Patrick Fugit) who also happens to be the son of the school’s pastor (Martin Donovan), and those who are closet atheists, like Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Hilary Faye’s brother who requires a wheelchair. There is even a Jewish girl, Cassandra (Eva Amurri Martino), who mocks anyone, especially Hilary Faye, trying to convince her that being a Christian is the only correct path to salvation.
The interactions among the disparate characters are written, executed, and performed with vibrant energy. Though some personalities are obvious extremes, there is a rhythm to the encounters in the hallways and cafeteria that is so distinct to high school. As a result, even though the story takes place in a mostly white Christian school, the feelings of being ostracized, victimized, or marginalized are delivered with clarity.
Less effective are the romantic detours. For instance, although Malone and Fugit look cute together, there seems to be little depth to what their characters wish to have. Mary and Patrick get one or two romantic scenes but there is little else to support them. A very similar observation can be applied to Roland and Cassandra. However, most pointless is the would-be romantic pairing between the pastor and Mary’s mother. Unlike the younger cast, Donovan and Parker share no chemistry whatsoever so their scenes or any scene where one talks about the other are boring.
The last twenty minutes is standard fluff. Don’t you hate it when anything and everything is revealed during “defining nights” like the prom? Though one can argue that it may be a part of the satire, I say that the screenplay has not done anything particularly special to overcome or overpower the clichés it is targeting.
Directed by Brian Dannelly, “Saved!” has enough vicious wit, cleverness, and energy to make up for its shortcomings in the final third. It does not hammer us over the head with its message of tolerance. Instead, it presents a variety of situations and it is up to us to ask ourselves if what is portrayed on screen is how we would like to be treated.