The God Squad
The Sweet Satire Of Saved! Takes on Religious Fundamentalists--and Then Forgives Them
High-school senior Mary (Jena Malone) is pregnant--a common enough occurrence. But a few things make Mary's situation peculiar. For starters, she attends an all-Christian high school, and her mother, Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker), sometimes messes around with faculty member Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). What's more, the father of Mary's child is gay--Mary made a pact with Jesus to be made an honorary virgin again, since she only sacrificed her maidenhead in a quest to convert her lover to heterosexuality. Meanwhile, Mary's best friend and Christian-rock band mate, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), shuns teenage mothers--even as Hilary Faye's randy, wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Macauley Culkin) would love to give the world a few more.
Unlike the humorous but wildly uneven Mean Girls, writer/director (and erstwhile Baltimorean; see sidebar) Brian Dannelly's Saved! manages a neat balancing act between the dark-comedy and teen-romance genres. When Dannelly sets his sights on the religious school as an institution, his satire pulls no punches--think of Todd Solondz handling the same material and you're not far off. One need not have had an American Protestant religious upbringing to recognize the truthfulness in some of the details Dannelly captures--the manner of dress among both faculty and staff, the overwhelming sense of guilt communicated to the students about sexual impulses, and the appropriation by staff members of certain pop-culture trends to smooth over students' doubts and make the school's message more palatable.
In this last department, Dannelly has a brilliant co-conspirator in actor Martin Donovan, who absolutely nails the character of Pastor Skip. During a school assembly, Skip rushes the stage to the tune of Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)"--one of the funniest on-screen moments in recent memory--and proceeds to address his hormonally repressed audience with a sloppy mixture of fading hip-hop and '90s rock slang. But despite the outdatedness of Skip's schtick, the kids eat it up, receiving him as proof that Christians can be hip. When Skip asks if the kids who idolize him want to be "Down with the G.O.D.," they realize, en masse, that they do--en masse, that is, save for Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the only Jewish student at the school. Cassandra alone watches Pastor Skip as we do: with eyes rolling and mouth agape.
But Skip isn't all comic relief. He also harbors serious doubts--not about his faith necessarily, but about his conduct (particularly where Lillian is concerned). As his inner conflict creeps to the surface and Skip's slick exterior begins to break down, we notice Dannelly's gentle touch--just as effective as his satirical skills and more pertinent to the final trajectory of Saved! Dannelly doesn't destroy Skip--nor, ultimately, the cruel, eminently unlikeable Hilary Faye--he takes pity on them. Dannelly doesn't blame Skip or Hilary Faye for their actions, because he understands their milieu and their motivations. Even as Saved! serves many characters their comeuppance, it also ends with just about everybody also offered a second chance.
It's this mercy--for its characters as feeling people, if not for uptight Christian schools and the scars they inflict--that sets Saved! apart from the movies it echoes most closely early on: brutal '90s dark comedies such as Election, The Opposite of Sex, and Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse. While Saved! scores far fewer laughs, and ultimately doesn't quite perform in the same league as those films, it also has kinder, gentler intentions.
Dannelly aspires to make a resonant film for teens--rather than a vicious movie about teenagers for adults--and hits his mark. As two effective romances blossom--between Mary and Skip's son Patrick (Patrick Fugit), and between Roland and Cassandra--we find ourselves re-evaluating what we're watching as not a watered-down dark comedy, but rather Sixteen Candles with a mere touch of Solodnz's Happiness.
Seen in these terms, Saved! succeeds. And Saved! has more amiable attributes than just compassion and forgiveness toward its most offensive characters: Like the films of John Hughes, Saved! aggressively argues for young people's right to have fun over their parents' objections; like fellow smarter-than-average teen film Bring It On, it urges today's students to take a step past previous generations, and see their gay and lesbian classmates as normal people--and as potential friends. These traits mark it as a good-natured, substantial teen film that aims to entertain (and not to condescend to) bona fide high-schoolers--with just enough of a mean streak to keep the embittered ex-teens of this world engaged.