Undermarked Oversights: Saved!

Christianity might regularly change with the times to appeal to the youth of their flock, but its effort toward a "hip" and "cool" makeover in the late-'90s and early 2000s struck a mainstream chord, marking the rise of Christian alt-rock, WWJD bracelets and brand-parody shirts, and massive worship conferences. While writer/director Brian Dannelly drew from his own experiences with Christian schooling and subculture during his youth while writing Saved!, a teen-comedy powered by religious satire, it's the timing of its release around the period of this "emerging church" that herded it into a cult-classic niche. Satirizing religion -- especially when involving teenagers -- can be tricky, but Dannelly know how to cross necessary lines that ask questions and push buttons without attacking the entire institution, resulting in a sharply funny depiction of teens navigating the complexities of morals, zealotry, and figuring out what their beliefs are in the process.

Mary Cummings (Jena Malone), a senior at American Eagle Christian High School, has a lot going for her. Along with graduating soon, she's also a member of a pop-music singing group that started at her school, the Christian Jewels, which is led by her wildly popular best friend, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Mary also has a good Christian boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), whom she can see spending her life with. The couple are confronted with a challenge, however, when Dean tells Mary that he might be gay, obviously a no-no when it comes to their faith. To help save the relationship and under the pretense that her actions will lead Dean astray from even worse sin, Mary decides to take their relationship to another level. In the process, Mary ends up pregnant, leaving her to hide the secret from her secular friends as she turns to the school's pariahs -- like Hilary Faye's handicapped brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin), and the school's wild-child "witch", Cassandra (Eva Amurri) -- for comfort and help with the situation, while also ducking the untimely flirtations from a ministry skateboarder, Patrick (Patrick Fugit).

Writer/director Brian Dannelly and co-writer Michael Urban channel long-term perceptions of Christian schools and this turn-of-the-century "revamp" movement of Christianity into the halls of American Eagle Christian High School, a place where it's difficult to tell who runs the place: the teachers, or the hero-worshipped Hilary Faye and her model posse of "Christian Jewels". Mandy Moore's overly cheerful charisma plays up the foundation of her character's higher-power faith into both a tool for her popularity and a weapon against those who clash with her and her beliefs, shaping Hilary into a unique kind of villain who stands toe-to-toe with the likes of Regina George in Mean Girls or Heather Duke in Heathers. From hands-in-the-air concerts with the Christian Jewels and the slang-riddled preaching from the school's dean to soul-saving prayer "interventions", Dannelly nails down a kind of moral battleground full of charismatic worship that won't stand for deviations from its -- or Hilary's -- way of thinking, a place of insistent love hiding its underlying intolerance.

Of course, what's a better way of using this buttoned-up atmosphere than to throw a bunch of challenges at its status quo? There's a degree of convenience behind the moral "hiccups" that Saved! introduces in its religious takedown, where teen pregnancy, homosexuality, and demonized non-believers all erupt at the same time around meek senior Mary, played with convincing naivete and simmering ferocity by Jena Malone. Yet, the personal experiences and research channeled into their stories neatly weave together with the setup orchestrated by director Dannelly, striking a balance between elevated reality and outright parody that carries enough authenticity to take seriously. Our playfully-named heroine, Mary, goes down a path that leads her through conflicts of morality and the integrity of her religion, and the broadening of her horizons along the way telegraphs a solid message about figuring out what elements of higher-power belief -- if any -- make sense to different people.

Backed by a soundtrack featuring tunes recorded by Mandy Moore, recognizable classic Christian songs like Jesus Christ Superstar, and seasonal music to mark the passing of time, Saved! follows the calculated moral battle that Hilary Faye wages against the "pariahs" of American Eagle over the schoolyear. While Mary struggles with how to handle and cover up her pregnancy situation from, well, everyone, effective humor forms around exorcisms, converting non-believers, and the dirty little secrets people keep about themselves. Punchlines are rarely overt, though; the funniest line in the film gets tossed out in the film's trailer. Instead, the comedic timing and chemistry within the rising-star cast elevates the surprisingly witty and cautiously subversive jabs in the writing -- especially through Mandy Moore's deadpan villainy as Hilary and Eva Amurri's brazen rebelliousness as Cassandra -- easing up on its satirical edge with a reputable amount of honest teen-oriented drama and romantic diversions.

Luckily, Saved! doesn't preach about the touchy topic of the Christian faith among high-schoolers, nor does it rely on using religion itself as the butt of easy or cruel jokes ... even though it probably could've held onto more cynicism while delivering the culmination of Mary's tribulations through intolerance. Between the budding relationships -- occasionally playing like relics of late-'90s sappy sitcom TV -- and the repartee between zealous believers and their opposing outsiders, a versatile tone builds between these fleshed-out caricatures and stereotypes that writer/director Dannelly brings together. This relatively dark comedy does focus on a clear point: there's an unquestionable commentary going on here about the stringent and sometimes hypocritical grasp people have on morals, forgiveness, and the Word of God. Saved! largely works because it understands how to step over those bounds for the sake of its critical satire, though, while also staying pleasantly accessible as it appeals to a broader, receptive audience with the actual spirit of its message.

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