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“Saved! is like those monster vampire high school kind of movies, only here the monsters are Jesus-freak teenagers.” —producer Michael Stipe (of R.E.M. fame)
The ringleader of the Saved! Jesus-freak monsters is Hilary Faye, a self-centered, going-though-the-motions Christian who's more interested in using her Bible as ammunition than as a tool to understand God. "Hilary Faye is the school's top cheerleader for the Lord," Mandy Moore says of her character. "[She's] strong-minded and very, very religious. She has a real strong sense of faith and knows where she's going. She's not afraid of who she is or of spreading the word. On the other hand, she's very insecure. She doesn't have an identity outside of Jesus, and you really see throughout the film how she uses her faith to control people and to take advantage of people around her."
The first person we see her taking advantage of is her wheelchair-bound brother, Roland. She's decided that he's her own personal cross to bear, and like the Pharisees before her, she diligently advertises her "good deeds" (in this case, wheeling him around and attending to his physical well-being) to anyone who'll listen. She also takes advantage of her circle of friends, bossing them around and intimidating them with her self-proclaimed spiritual prowess.
According to Hilary Faye, the only person attending American Eagle Christian High School who isn't a born-again Christian is Cassandra, a Jewish "bad-girl" whose immoral reputation ("She was a stripper before she started going here!") has been juicing up the school's gossip mill. Hilary brags that she'll be the one who finally converts Cassandra, and turns the girl's eternal destiny into a horse race. When she finally has the opportunity, she approaches the "task" of leading Cassandra to the Lord as a dentist would a root canal, fretting that she doesn’t have all her “gear” with her to do the job right. Cassandra, in response, taunts and ridicules Hilary by feigning the salvation experience, then telling her it "didn't take," and that she converted to Satanism the following day.
It really is that weird at American Eagle Christian High School. And it explains in large part why Roland finds himself drifting away from Hilary and toward Cassandra. He's tired of the show. He's tired of the hypocrisy. He’s tired of being nothing more than a convenient cross. And he's very much interested in Cassandra's shapely body and short skirts! The weirdness is certainly the reason Mary, one of Hilary's "Christian Jewels” pals, begins to question her faith. Even before she sleeps with her (gay) boyfriend, gets pregnant and runs headlong into the collective, pious revulsion of an entire peer set, she's beginning to wonder if God is really interested in her being a "rules-and-regulations Christian teenager," or if He has some other—hipper—path for her to travel.
Despite going to a Planned Parenthood clinic when she gets pregnant, Mary never considers abortion. She carries her baby to term, and celebrates his new life. But ...
So many more things about Saved! might have been positive had the motivations and spiritual condition of those doing beneficial things been different. It's saddening—and maddening—that the only characters expressing the love and grace and compassion Christ modeled for us are the ones who consciously and repeatedly reject Him. Cassandra and Roland are Mary's only refuge when it's discovered that she's pregnant. Everyone else (all the Christians) snub her.
On its face that's the kind of story line that could effectively be used to shame selfish believers for retreating into enclaves of unforgiving "righteousness" while ignoring the real needs of "sinful" neighbors and friends. And there is a real sense to it that struck me as illustrative of how all Christians would behave if all we had was a list of dos, don'ts, traditions and liturgies, with no personal relationship with the living God. If we had to do all of the things that we are "expected" to do as Christians and we did not have the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling us, we would all be Hilary Fayes. But Saved! doesn’t bother with such nuance or balance. The filmmakers are far too busy taking vituperative pot shots at Christ and His followers to care much about creating constructive criticism.
Examples of the biting contempt the script shows for Christians include a scene in which Cassandra pretends to be overwhelmed by the filling of the Holy Spirit during a school chapel service. With malicious intent she begins "speaking in tongues," uttering a string of nonsensical phrases she makes up as she goes along. Then, in a mock crescendo of passion, she rips open her blouse, exposing her breasts to the entire student body. Equally scornful, if not more so, is a crass attempt to add a sexual twinge to Christ's death on the cross. It happens during a dress rehearsal for a passion play in which the school hunk dons a glittering loincloth before being dangled from a cross. Schoolgirls ogle his nearly-naked form, and Cassandra makes off-color comments. Elsewhere, Cassandra and Roland laugh over the idea that a Christian girl goes to a Planned Parenthood clinic for one of two reasons: she’s pregnant, or she’s planning to blow up the place.
A slightly more subtle mockery is made of very young children accepting "Jesus into [their] hearts and getting saved." The same applies to God's divine plan for His children. Bible studies. Christian clubs. Prayer meetings. And Christian education. Christianese lingo—made to feel insincere—is trotted out at every turn ("Let's get our Christ on," "Let's kick it Jesus style," "Down with G.O.D.," "You're not born-agay, you're born again").
When Mary finds herself moving away from her faith in Christ, she samples other religions to try to fill the void. Hilary Faye and her cohorts attempt to perform a hasty exorcism/intervention on Mary.
Mary gets pregnant when she has sex with her boyfriend, Dean. (The camera focuses on the shaking bed.) Why does this young Christian virgin, committed to remaining pure until her wedding night, choose to consummate her affection for Dean? After Dean informs her that he’s gay, she takes it upon herself to win him back, finally concluding that the only way to straighten him out is to sacrifice her virginity "for the cause." (She tells her friends afterwards that Jesus told her to do it and that He promised he would restore her virginity if she did what He said.) Upon completion of the act, she rolls over in bed (showing moviegoers her—very thin—sports bra) and whispers, "Thank you Jesus." I should note that before going all the way with Dean, Mary tries to wake up his masculine attraction to women by making out with him and having him fondle her bikini-clad breasts (in-frame). [Spoiler Warning] Neither make-out sessions nor copulation work. Dean ends up “happily” dating another guy after meeting him at a Christian rehab facility known for its "degayification" processes.
Mary narrates that "after a threatening letter from the State Board of Education, they finally broke down and created a sex ed class" at American Eagle High. It consists of the principal, Pastor Skip, displaying heavily airbrushed images of a nude man and woman, and telling the class that "good Christians don't get jiggy with it until they're married."
Porn pops up in a girl's e-mail. And Dean is seen leafing through a homosexually themed porn magazine. (His parents figure out he's gay when they find the mag stashed under his bed.) Cassandra jokes about Mary making money by letting pornographers take pictures of her while she's pregnant. It's implied that Mary's mother is carrying on an affair with Pastor Skip. (He’s plagued by guilt about his indiscretions, but those feelings don’t keep him from continuing the dalliance.) Conversation also indicates that Roland and Cassandra are frequently intimate. Couples kiss. The camera lingers on girls' short skirts and women's cleavage. A girl confesses to God that she "let that Promise Maker (a dig at Promise Keepers) touch me in the rectory." When Cassandra bares her breasts during the school chapel service, the camera glimpses skin. (There are no full-on shots.)
Shouting "I'm filled with Christ's love," Hilary Faye angrily flings her Bible at Mary, hitting her in the back. Hilary and her friends tackle Mary and drag her into a van so they can "exorcise" her wandering spirit. In a rage Hilary rams her van into a statue of Jesus. (The head falls off and crashes onto her hood.)
Crude or Profane Language
The s-word, the f-word and “g--d--n” are all hurled at Jesus during a “prayer.” God’s name is used as an interjection about a dozen times. Jesus’ name is profaned twice. Mild profanity and crudities include “a--,” “a--hole,” “p---” and “b--ch.”
Drug and Alcohol Content
Cassandra and Roland smoke cigarettes every chance they get. In fact, getting a "smoke" together becomes their special bonding "thing."
Other Negative Elements
Pastor Skip uses the racy rap tune "Whoomp! There It Is" as segue music during chapel. The school is sprayed with crass and insulting graffiti. Cassandra and Roland steal Hilary Faye's credit card and use it to buy Mary new clothes.
Growing up, director and screenwriter Brian Dannelly attended a Catholic elementary school, a Baptist high school and a Jewish summer camp. "In my high school, we weren't allowed to dance," he reminisces. "Everybody had to be at least six inches away from the opposite sex at all times. We had record burnings, and the entertainment at my senior prom was a puppet show." That explains why his movie feels like a personal attack. It is personal.
Dannelly claims that Saved! presents "authentic Christian teens who make poor choices, have a crisis of faith, seek answers, and ultimately emerge with a genuine faith made strong through the fire of life." But what Dannelly considers "genuine faith" is expressed onscreen as nothing more than feel-good, wishy-washy pluralism. Star Jena Malone is more accurate when she defines her character's journey as a "breaking down of faith." After having her baby—surrounded by everyone in the movie who can’t seem to stand Christians—Mary acknowledges that "life is too amazing to be random and meaningless." But she's not about to begin embracing Jesus again. The implications are clear: "There has to be a god," she says, but the Bible isn't the way to find him. "You just have to feel it.”
What values and beliefs do the filmmakers hope viewers will walk away with after watching Saved!? Co-star Eva Amurri: "I think no matter what religion you are, you have to learn to adapt to the world today. It's about how you take these morals imposed on you by certain religions and transpose that onto what you're experiencing in everyday life." Mandy Moore: "It is about discovering who you are and what you believe in. It's about tolerance, acceptance and diversity." Brian Dannelly: Loosen the leash! And buy a bigger needle. "The danger can be that the road is really narrow. Not everyone can walk it, and if you don't live up to certain biblical standards, you risk being left behind, alone and alienated. It's hard enough being a teenager without having to make the path so difficult with no room for mistakes."
Michael Stipe says the reason his production company, Single Cell Pictures, agreed to do the film is because it was "one of the funnier and more absolutely audacious, subversive scripts" he had seen for some time. "My personal belief is that Christianity and spirituality in general need a little bit of a push into the 21st century, particularly from the point of view of the teenager," he says.
If, after being pushed, the result looks like Cassandra, Roland or Mary, Christians would do well to sit tight and refuse to be budged.
A postscript: The script for this film originally called for the Elms, a Christian retro band, to play themselves at American Eagle’s prom. But the Elms backed out a week before their scene was to be shot. Band manager Craig Jager said his band was not amused by the script’s mocking spiritual tone. “It’s over the top. It brings out a radical type of Christian lifestyle. It really goes overboard with the Christian jargon,” he said. Elms vocalist Owen Thomas posted a statement on the band’s Web site saying that their decision not to perform was made because being a part of the film would have required them “to condone and support things we’re wholeheartedly against, moral and spiritual issues. ... We’re not ready to forfeit our loyalty to those things.”
Several Christian musicians in the Vancouver area (where the film was shot) were asked to fill in for the Elms, but they too turned down the “opportunity.” Likewise, a Christian homeowner whose house was slated to become a set decided against it at the last minute. And a Lutheran church refused to let cameras on-site.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jena Malone as Mary; Mandy Moore as Hilary Faye; Macaulay Culkin as Roland; Patrick Fugit as Patrick; Heather Matarazzo as Tia; Eva Amurri as Cassandra; Martin Donovan as Pastor Skip; Mary-Louise Parker as Lillian
Brian Dannelly ( )