What would Jesus do? That’s the theological conundrum at the heart of SAVED!, a smart, sharp, and ultimately compassionate consideration of just that question. And before anyone jumps to any conclusions, consider the biblical injunction to judge not lest ye be judged. Open your mind, the way many people in this film just won’t, and let the good times roll.
Our heroine is the aptly named Mary (Jena Malone), a sublimely happy born-again girl living her idea of the perfect Christian life. She is a member of the Christian Jewels singing group at the perfect school, the American Eagle Christian Academy, has a devoutly Christian mother (Mary-Louise Parker) who has just been named number one Christian interior designer for the greater Baltimore area, and dates a devoutly Christian boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust). That last is where things start to give a bit at the seams of this ideal existence. Two weeks before the start of their senior year said boyfriend confesses that he thinks hes gay while they’re trading secrets underwater in his father’s pool. The shock is just too much for Mary, as is the knock on her head as she tries to resurface and doesn’t quite make it. In her semi-dazed state, she sees Jesus who tells her to help Dean. After much reflection and a round of target practice at the Emmanuel Shooting Range (their motto is an eye for an eye) with best pal, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), the answer seems clear. She must save Dean by showing him all that he would be missing and so, on what she sees as a mission from God, she assumes the missionary position. Instead of what she thought she would be getting, a cured boyfriend and a miraculous restoration of her virginity, a different sort of miracle starts growing in her tummy, one that will make its debut in nine months, or as Mary computes it, right around prom night. Oops.
As Mary’s dilemma grows, literally and figuratively, she starts wondering about things that it never occurred to her to question before, like why the school’s only Jewish (Eva Amurri) student is the only one to notice her condition and to offer support, not a put down in the form of a bible verse. And why Roland, Hilary Faye’s snarky, unsaved, wheelchair-bound brother (Macaulay Culkin) who is also privy to Mary’s secret, drew a bead on the hypocrisy a long time before Mary did. And once that starts, there’s no turning back even when everyone else turns their back on her because of her epiphanies that seem to them like the most pernicious of backsliding.
Co-writer/director Brian Dannelly takes a witty but deadly approach to the pitfalls of using a narrow set of rules to decide what God’s will is exactly. His world is peopled who have surrendered free will for the safe and comfortable place that some organized religions offer, where all the questions have simple answers, but where it’s best not to do any questioning at all. He stays on point and on message about the values he proposes as an alternative, and one that might better jive with the message of the Prince of Peace, not to mention Buddha and a few others. It’s not just the jokes about Santa being Satan, or the high school cliques that want to out-Christian each other in ways that seem to have missed the point about loving thy neighbor, it’s also seeing good-hearted people like the Reverend Skip (Martin Donovan) turn against their own nature instead of going with their better instincts and in the end only hurting themselves. It’s summed up beautifully when Hilary Faye, after failing in her attempts perform a makeshift kidnapping/exorcism on Mary to re-save her, lobs a bible at her. Mary picks it up, shoves it in Hillary Faye’s face and yells This is not a weapon, a line that works on so many levels that its positively dazzling. It’s something Reverend Skip’s skateboarding-for-Jesus son, Patrick (a totally cuddly Patrick Fugit) seems to have glommed onto without the reverend fathers help. He’s also glommed onto Mary and she him. Talk about bad timing.
Malone is great with that intelligent face and grave demeanor, but she has stiff competition in Amurri and Moore. The former rocks with an insolent, knowing look in her dark eyes and a delicious in-your-face sort of apathy that abates only when leading on Hilary Faye about being converted or starting up a sweet little romance with Roland. As for Moore, she projects a venomous sort of perkiness that is as truly evil as it is smug. At the other end of the spectrum is Parker, who embodies a sweet soul that lost its way, both as a widowed mother who is caring though diffident, and a Christian, who hasn’t looked much beyond the easy slogans.
Love thy neighbor as thyself is a simple enough message. Trust human beings to make it complicated. SAVED! takes no prisoners when using comedy to make that point, going for the belly laughs, but never for the jugular. Unlike many of the denizens of the American Eagle Christian Academy, this is a film that thinks we’re all redeemable, no matter how far weve strayed from that original, simple message. And don’t forget what Jesus told Mary to do at the beginning of the film, or it might have been the pool guy who dove in to save her after she bumped her head. It’s good advice for everyone, as long as you stop to think what he actually means.