2004Director: Brian Dannelly
Cast: Jena Malone, Macaulay Culkin
hat do I believe?" It's a good question and a solid foundation for a movie. Saved! follows a number of high schoolers and a pair of adults, each of whom follows his or her own path toward answering this question. Most of the characters confront their own beliefs with a certain degree of courage and success. Unfortunately, the movie itself seems to have the most trouble nailing down an answer.
You could say that Saved! is your average teenage comedy romp imagined though the lens of a fundamentalist-slash-wannabe-hip Christian high school. There are the mean-spirited cliques, the awkward romance, a gym class scene, and of course, the big prom night finale. The added ingredient in these high schoolers’ lives is an unyielding and pervasive Evangelical Christianity. Indeed, Breakfast Club plus The Last Picture Show minus Molly Ringwald plus Jesus might be an appropriate equation to help sum it up.
But there’s more. You’ve got to give the filmmakers some credit. They appear to be itching, at least, to confront some of the ambiguities and complexity of faith and what it means to be young and questioning. They appear to be yearning, at least, for an original narrative perch from which to offer their take. Because of this, Saved! is never boring and often thoughtful.
I’m just not feeling it today, dawg.
The movie starts when all is well. Our sweet hero Mary (Jena Malone) has her friends, school is great, and so is God. Of course, that’s when, on cue, trouble starts. In an attempt to cure her boyfriend of his suddenly realized homosexuality, Mary has sex with him. Although this is expressly forbidden by her faith, she does so because that’s what she thinks Jesus would have wanted. Of course, he gets sent away, she gets pregnant and the ensuing hour and a half unfurls with stunning consequence after stunning consequence. The young cast that plays Mary’s peers is vibrant and entertaining. Macaulay Culkin shows up as a sharp wheelchairbound non-believer and voice of reason. And Mandy Moore is Hilary Fay, the evil bitch who seemingly conflates her Jesus-love and her self-confidence.
The movie begins as caustic satire, providing a hysterical and illuminating portrait of the self-righteous and stubborn fundamentalists that populate Mary’s world. It takes aim at hypocrites and bigots, but lacks the subtlety to distinguish those from the genuine, the vulnerable and the simple. Great satire creates a situation wherein everyone is guilty, everyone is the villain, and everyone (audience included) is to be laughed at. Instead, here we get two camps, the right and the wrong. Even if you feel like you’re in the right (and in this case, most who see the movie will), even if you’re the one doing the laughing, the humor inevitably loses some of its punch.
The Good Son gets his…
And yet that’s not Saved!’s greatest failing. Had that tone been maintained, then it would have been excusable. Dr. Strangelove or Election it’s not. Instead, Saved! forsakes its biting first half-hour and slowly but deliberately inches toward melodrama and melodrama’s heathen offspring, the sappy romance. There’s “surprise” after “surprise” but little to get excited about. Ultimately, Saved! comes dangerously close to becoming the Valerie Bertinelli Lifetime TV movie that it so cynically mocked in its early minutes—or, worse, and oddly, those teenage romps from which it so quickly disassociated itself in the first place. There’s speeding cars, tears, a baby, and rock and roll. Ferris Beuller or American Graffiti succeed by simply making you feel like all that hoopla is the only thing in the world a teenager could ever need. But here, we know there ought to be more. What we get feels like a weak cop out.
As the kids play out the drama of being seventeen, we want to sync up with the movie and its aims. That’s where the filmmaker’s mixed signals and our difficulty begins. It’s hard to feel one way or another, when the movie wants to have them both. Saved! has moments of brilliance, an energetic momentum and a consistent cleverness that is easy to appreciate. But without real purpose, the film sadly becomes just a rough beast slouching mercifully toward the credits.
By: Rob Lott
Published on: 2004-06-16