Appellate Judge Dave Ryan never thought he'd enjoy a Macaulay Culkin film. Ever. Oh, how he was wrong...
"In my heart, I know that Jesus still loves me."
In today's "values"-laden America, it takes guts to make a film that satirizes religion. Saved!, a bitingly incisive critique of unfocused religious fervor aimed at teens, was released last spring to rave critical reviews. It also generated its fair share of controversy, mostly from fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who thought their belief system was being openly mocked by the film. In any event, like everything else released in the spring and early summer it was completely overshadowed by that other film. You know—the one that was made by the Lethal Weapon guy. But it still did reasonably well at the box office, and now Saved! is available on DVD for your home viewing pleasure.
Facts of the Case
Mary (Jena Malone, Contact) is a good Christian girl attending a good Christian high school somewhere in America. She has a good-looking Christian boyfriend named Dean (Chad Faust, The 4400), her mom Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker, Fried Green Tomatoes) who was just named the number one Christian home decorator in the region, and membership in a key social clique at school that's led by her long-time friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore, A Walk to Remember)—who is, of course, a Christian.
But Mary's perfect little Christian world is about to be rocked in a serious way. Just before the school year starts, Dean admits to Mary that he thinks (correctly) that he's gay. Mary, confused, attempts to "cure" him by having sex with him. (She thought Jesus told her to do that. He didn't.) Naturally, she becomes pregnant. Dean remains gay. Before school starts, Dean is packed off to a "treatment center" called Mercy House to be de-gayed. As the school year progresses, Mary has to deal with the consequences of her pregnancy, her questions about whether her acts were sinful, and her attraction to Patrick (Patrick Fugit, Almost Famous), the son of the school's pastor, the semi-hip Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan, The Opposite of Sex). As Hilary Faye and her über-Christian clique recede further from the increasingly rebellious Mary, she forms an odd bond with the exceedingly rebellious Cassandra (Eva Amurri, The Banger Sisters), the only "Jewish" enrolled in the school, and Hilary Faye's handicapped brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone).
And then there's the prom to deal with…
At heart, Saved! is a detailed spoof of the '80s-era John Hughes teen comedies—but there are some who would have you think that it's a gob of Satan's spittle directed at good-thinking Christians in our country. Where does the truth lie? To the vast majority of people, including people of devout Christian faith, the answer should be obvious: it lies within you; in your personal belief system and how comfortable you are with your own faith. Saved! does not "mock" religion, it merely points out that any firmly-held belief system—be it Christianity, Notre Dame football, or Star Wars—can be exploited, misinterpreted, or somehow bent out of shape under certain circumstances.
Each character in this morality play has a different approach to their faith. Everyone in the film is a good and honest Christian person (well, except for Cassandra, of course), and everyone truly wants to do what they feel is right. However, each character is also human—and humans have flaws and foibles galore that often interfere with our noblest intentions.
Take, for example, Hilary Faye, the "villainess" of the film. Is she an overbearing bitch at times? Of course she is—because a lot of pretty girls are that way. The beautiful prom-queen busybody isn't unique to a Christian high school. But on the other hand, Christian high schools aren't exempt from bitchy prom queens, either, just because they're Christian. People are people, you know. But what about Hilary Faye's Christianity? She does some fairly outrageous things in the film, such as repeated attempts to convert Cassandra. Is that a cause for us to dislike her, or hate her? No! For all her flaws, Hilary Faye is doing what she thinks is the best for everyone—the film makes that very clear. Her efforts are misguided not because Christianity is bad, but because Hilary Faye's faith is too entangled with her own self-image. Everyone wants to think they're special; Hilary Faye thinks she's special because of her extreme (and externalized) devotion to Christ. She never stops to reflect on whether her actions with respect to that devotion actually conform to Christ's teachings, because that would be tantamount to questioning—and therefore, potentially criticizing—herself.
There's a very basic, very Christian message in this film that, ironically, is probably invisible to those who need to hear it the most. All of the "bad" characters in the film (and I use the term "bad" hesitantly; no one is really bad in the film—just misguided) share a similar flaw: they think that faith, and Christianity, is all about themselves. When Mary's pregnancy is discovered, Pastor Skip blames himself—he views it as "punishment from God" for the relationship he and Lillian had begun to explore. No, Skip—it's not about you. It's about Mary, and Mary's choices. Similarly, in the oft-played scene where Hilary Faye throws her Bible at Mary and says "I am filled with Christ's love!" (it was included in every commercial for the film), the irony flies right past her head. To Hilary Faye, Mary's spiritual doubt is tantamount to a direct attack, because Hilary Faye's self-image is so closely tied to her very specific, personal Christianity. It's funny that the Hilary Fayes in the real world are almost certainly the ones rejecting this film as blasphemy, for that very same reason. Irony…irony.
But leaving aside the theology for a moment, there's a more important question at work here—is the film funny? Thankfully, the answer is "yes"—but like the John Hughes films it parrots, the humor is more melancholy and subdued than "ha-ha" funny. Writer/director Brian Dannelly pulls out every teen movie cliché in the book (e.g. the awkward social-climber trying to break into the in-crowd, the fish-out-of-water rebel, the beautiful girl with an ugly past, and all your Breakfast Club favorites), but deploys them in a way that doesn't seem like a tired retread of stuff we've seen before. Maybe it's just the Christian school setting that breathes new life into these old jokes, but whatever it is, it works.
Also working for the film is the spot-on casting. With one exception, every major character in the film was the first and only choice of the production team for the role. Jena Malone has the right blend of innocence and intelligence to make Mary a highly sympathetic character. Patrick Fugit's talent continues to astound me. The Patrick character is almost a throwaway role—the kind of just-show-up-and-look-good role Andrew McCarthy would have played back in the day. But Fugit somehow manages to imbue Patrick with a lot of character, and make him a memorable person in the film, all in the few scenes he has. This kid may well be the best actor of his generation, and we get to see him as a teenager. Heady stuff.
The biggest shock for me, by far, was seeing an adult Macaulay Culkin acting his Home Alone butt off. He's legitimately great in the film. Eva Amurri—Susan Sarandon's 19-year-old daughter by director Franco Amurri (Flashback)—plays off of him well; they make a quirky couple.
It's hard to be an adult in a teen movie, but Donovan and the always-charming Parker almost steal the show. Their awkward and fumbling, but highly endearing, relationship almost deserves its own film. Pastor Skip's hip-hop preaching is hysterically uncool, but the kids eat it up, because he's so obviously genuine. Lillian is one of the more realistic single mothers I've seen on film, but is still quirky and entertaining. Their Valentine's Day dinner (awkward and fumbling, of course) is uplifting and heartwrenching at the same time. It's hard not to like either of these characters, and it's a shame that we didn't get to see more of them.
There was, as mentioned above, one exception to the producer's dream-casting run. Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) was originally slated to play the Hilary Faye role, but ultimately pulled out of the project in favor of Ella Enchanted. Hathaway is a gifted actress who would probably have been terrific in the role—but the producers lucked out here. Just a couple of weeks before shooting began, the role was cast with teen singer Mandy Moore, who didn't really have a huge track record as an actress. As it turned out, she was unquestionably the perfect choice for the part. Moore's performance is a stand-out role in a stand-out cast. Not only does she look perfect for the role (although they did mullet out her hair a bit), but she makes Hilary Faye into a multifaceted character, rather than a one-dimensional foil for Mary. She's clearly the "bad guy" in the tale, but we never really reach the point of thinking that she's irredeemable. It's a fine line to walk, and Moore walks it exceedingly well. I think I'm going to have to reconsider my blanket condemnation of female-pop-singers-turned-actresses now…
Picture and sound are pretty good on the whole. The widescreen transfer is nice and crisp, and the Dolby 5.1 surround track is clear. There's a lot of quality music in the film, and the surround track keeps the music sufficiently loud and clear without drowning out dialogue or sound effects—that's always a plus.
A decent assortment of extras rounds out the package. You get your usual assortment of deleted scenes, which are all pretty solid. Most of these were deleted to keep the film's MPAA rating down to a PG-13, so that the film's target audience could actually see it. Along the same lines, there's a "revelations" featurette that contains additional bits that were edited out for ratings purposes. There's a fairly funny blooper reel, too, and a run-of-the-mill behind-the-scenes featurette.
Two commentaries are provided: one by writer/director Dannelly, his writing partner Michael Urban, and producer Sandy Stern; one with Jena Malone and Mandy Moore. Surprisingly, the Malone/Moore commentary is far superior. They give us more insight into the film, their characters, and the production than the director, writers, and producers. (What were the odds of that?) Sure, at times they're a couple of young women chattering on like young women often do, but they're both pretty darned smart, and both have a lot of interesting things to say. The Dannelly/Urban/Stern commentary suffers from having been recorded a week before the film's premiere—the overwhelming message of the track is "we're glad it's over and done with" and "we hope the film does well." Sandy Stern is pretty annoying as well; he constantly interrupts interesting stories by Dannelly and Urban to talk about how great someone was, or other such unnecessary fluff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Saved! is a sad, bigoted, anti-Christian movie that mocks the Christian faith. [It] is a hateful, politically correct movie. It is being heavily marketed to the community it mocks to lead Christian youth astray and make them resent their own faith.
"The one character who tries to preach the Gospel in the movie is actually the villain. The heroine Mary, played by Jena Malone, has a vision that Jesus tells her to fornicate with the school hunk in order to save him from homosexuality. At the end, Mary learns that her only true friends are Cassandra, a irreverent Jewish girl who claims to have been a stripper, and the villain's brother, who denies being a Christian and lusts after the stripper.
"Cassandra is the real heroine who turns Mary away from the uptight Christian students who believe in faith, values, and the power of prayer. Imagine if this movie were set in an Orthodox Jewish school with faithful Jewish children cast as the villains and a Christian girl shows how legalistic the Jewish girls are. Or, what if it were set in an Islamic school with faithful Muslims cast as the villains and a Christian or Jewish Girl exposes how legalistic the Muslims are? The outcry in the press would be tremendous! Not to mention the righteous outcry from Jews or Muslims! Looking at it from the point of view of other faiths highlights how bigoted the movie Saved! is and reveals how MGM is marketing it to Christian children to try to divorce them from their faith!
"This is abhorrent and people of faith and faith must be forewarned."
-- Dr. Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian Film & Television
Consider yourself forewarned.
Not guilty, and forgiven of sin. Because I know in my heart that Ted Baehr is narrow-minded and wrong. But Jesus still loves him, too.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Director/Co-Writer Brian Dannelly, Producer Sandy Stern, and Co-Writer Michael Urban
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