Sunday, June 27, 2004


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 June 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

I'm glad the makers of Saved! opted to treat their captial-C Christian characters with more respect than derision. Aside from sidestepping the hypocricy of using mocking stereotypes in a story about acceptance, it allows co-writer/director Brian Dannelly to make a movie about teenagers that seems neither unrealistically naïve nor smothered in irony.

It's easy to make fun of Christians, and tempting. Most Americans describe themselves as belonging to some sort of christian faith, be it Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, or other, but their faith isn't the central part of their life that the it logically should be, as the source of one's value system. So we defensively deride them as unsophisticated, or concentrate on the ones who don't practice what they preach. There are some of those to be found in Saved!, but that's more indicative of them being regular people, not Christians.

Jena Malone is ideally cast as Mary, the film's main character; she's got a face that conveys intelligence and uncertainty, so that you can believe her as both naïve enough to not realize her boyfriend is gay (and that she can "fix" this by sleeping with him) and practical enough to handle the consequences of her actions (pregnancy). Mary's stumbling to figure out what's right and wrong in a world that suddenly seems more complicated than it had before.

She's given able support by a fine cast. Mandy Moore plays the Christian school equivelent of on of Mean Girls's "plastics"; her Hilary Faye is rich, pretty, and self-centered, all too eager to make sure everyone sees how generous she is. Macauley Culkin is actually pretty great as Hilary's wheelchair-bound older brother, who has suffered his sister's attention since he was paralyzed at the age of nine and grown somewhat resentful. Culkin has emerged from nearly a decade out of the spotlight as an actual good, likable actor. Patrick Fugit gets to say the right things as the good-guy pastor's son, while Eva Amurri injects some needed anarchy into the picture as a Jewish girl attending the school because she's been expelled from everywhere else. The adults come off pretty well, too, with Martin Donovan as the school's principal (and Patrick's father), Pastor Skip; he manages to look just dorky and sincere enough to sell the character. Mary-Louise Parker plays Mary's mother as perhaps not quite so wrapped up in her faith as her daughter, or at least not so obsessed by it. She's the kind of parent who is so used to her daughter's good grades and good behavior that she doesn't notice Mary's eight months pregnant.

The movie juggles those characters pretty well, and is also quite funny. Culkin and Amurri get most of the best lines, notably a great exchange about what a good Christian girl is doing there when they see Mary leaving a Planned Parenthood center. It's really a pretty great script, balancing the specifically Christian and more universal in a way that lets you laugh at the characters but also understand and like them. I've read that Dannelly and co-writer Michael Urban went through dozens of re-writes, but it's for the best, as they managed to keep the wit while making a movie that will likely only offend the very easily offended.

That's no small achievement. Saved! could have easily been an exercise in feeling superior, but winds up being something better.

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