The Passion for Christ

High school outcasts and Jesus freaks duke it out in Saved!

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Beware the exclamation point. When found at the end of a title, it almost inevitably signals a level of self-hype rarely justified by the content of whatever it hopes to name. In the case of the movie Saved! -- an amusing if facile comedy about a good Christian girl gone wrong -- the emphatic punctuation is meant both to represent the pristine enthusiasm of the Christian youth movement and to ironize it. It's easy enough to hear the cheerleader in it, and writer/director Brian Dannelly has a great deal of fun berating the silliness therein. Here are the Christians! They're so earnest! And funny! Ready, okay!

Yes, it's an easy target. And that's one of the film's main flaws; just how hard is it to make fun of people who seek the counsel of a highly contemporized, teen-ified Jesus with every waking breath? ("Let's get our Christ on! Moose down with the G-O-D!") Still, more than a few of the film's jokes land, it's fun to identify with the rebels and outcasts, and we can always enjoy another enactment of the fall of the self-righteous.

Mary (Jena Malone) is a member of her Christian high school's popular elite, led by queen bee Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). When Mary learns that her boyfriend might be gay, she uses some sensible Jesus-logic and tries to save him by engaging in some very premarital sex. Alas, the boyfriend isn't saved, and worse, Mary conceives. Only this time, the annunciation arrives in the personage of Saint Valerie Bertinelli.

At the beginning of the film, Mary's faith is a bit rickety; once her home-pregnancy test turns blue, she veers into spiritual crisis. This leads her away from her Christian girl-band posse and into the arms of the school's rebels: wheelchair-bound Roland (the authentically charming Macaulay Culkin), sexy Jewish fuckup Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and sweet skater-boy Patrick (Patrick Fugit). This motley crew helps Mary hide her pregnancy while treating her to a taste of decency and friendship, long since denied to her by überbitch Hilary Faye.

Basically, it's a high school popularity farce, this time with the freaks pitted against the Jesus freaks. It's the same as every other movie in which the reigning social scene is one of bullshit superficiality and hypocritical elitism, this time enacted on the stage of Jesus worship. And here, as everywhere else in this genre, it's the outsiders who have the depth and awareness to break through the lies being peddled around them, even (and especially) by their elders. The minute the film opens, you know exactly what's coming, but you go ahead and root for the outcast kids anyway.

Still, there are flaws here. In an otherwise strong cast, Eva Amurri (playing Cassandra) is often forced, though she settles into the role eventually. Second, as enjoyable as Jena Malone is, she's so good at playing dour and unenthusiastic that it's hard to believe she ever squealed with delight over the big J.C. Jena, a pin-wearing popular girl who sways with ecstasy as she plays her keyboard at a school assembly? It just doesn't work. So when the spiritual crisis comes, it's hardly worth a shrug. No more Jesus? Yeah, well. She was pretty much doing without the holy dude before the baby came.

Then there's Hilary Faye, the over-freighted villain, who has to carry the burden of most of the evil in the movie. She's not just blonde and conventionally pretty; she's also a judgmental fascist who operates from a core of seething insecurity. One move in the wrong direction from best-friend Mary, and Hilary Faye's got a new posse member -- which is far enough beyond the realm of believability to mess with the movie's purpose. Sure, Saved! is basically a satire, but satire's better when things feel true, and Hilary Faye is just too far gone to Satan to be real. Worse, the movie punishes her with an overdose of shame, including an overweight and heavily pimpled past.

In this last detail, the film betrays its own politics, which fall short of inclusive. All of the outcast kids are attractive and thin; the movie doesn't dare to ask us to love a fat kid or (God forbid) someone with bad skin. Instead, it uses Hilary Faye's fat and acned past against her, inviting the audience to laugh with the teenagers at how entirely hideous she used to be. It's an old, old gag, as jejune as the misguided believers the film wants to mock.

"No one fits in 100 percent of the time," Mary tells us near the end, in a feeling plea for inclusion. True enough. So why couldn't Saved! have included a slightly wider swath of the population in its beloved and noble outsiders? Surely, that's what Jesus would do.

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