Thursday, May 7, 2009

Saved! (2004)

I may not be down with the G-O-D but I am so down with Saved!, Brian Dannelly's debut feature (and only film up to date as he's been devoting more time to television). Mary (Jena Malone) has been living the life of a devout Christian teenager for years, so when her boyfriend Dean confides to her that he might be gay, she believes she has to "save" him from this awful affliction. She decides the best way to do this is by sleeping with him, hoping to restore her spiritual virginity through prayer, but Dean's parents end up sending him to Mercy House, a Christian rehab that deals with gayness, unwed mothers, and the like. Mary is confused and offended, taking solace in the guidance of her best friend and Super-Christian Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore).

However, when she finds out she's pregnant, Mary's faith is completely shaken and she breaks away from her old group of narrow-minded friends, determined to get through the pregnancy without anyone knowing. Resident bad girl at her high school (and the only Jewish student) Cassandra (Eva Amurri) catches on quickly though, and helps her through it along with her boyfriend Roland (Macaulay Culkin), who happens to be Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother. The story follows Mary throughout the school year as she deals with hiding her pregnancy, backlash from offending Hilary Faye, and romantic advances from new student Patrick (Patrick Fugit). It also highlights the relationships of Cassandra and Roland as well as Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker), Mary's mom, and Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), school principal/Patrick's dad.

Ok so reading that plot summary, Saved! might sound like a soap opera, but it's actually incredibly funny. Various aspects of fanatical fundamentalism are exposed and parodied, but not condescendingly. Dannelly's inspiration came from his personal experiences at the Christian schools he attended (his parents threw him out of the house when he came out to them as a teenager, there was a Jewish girl whom other students tried to "save", etc). Some of it is just silly (ie "ARE YOU DOWN WITH THE G-O-D?!" or "They're so jesus-centric!"), some is startling (Hilary-Faye attempting to perform an exorcism on Mary), while much of it is quite sad (Mary praying she has cancer instead of being pregnant).

Dannelly and co-writer Michael Urban comment on a range of issues experienced by teenagers raised in a strict fundamentalist environment who fall outside the parameters defining a "good Christian". No one is presented as the bad guy, it's more about a clash of ideals and lifestyle choices. Representing the religious right, Pastor Skip and Hilary-Faye hold others to strict moral expectations, becoming blind to how their narrow view of the world causes pain to others. However this doesn't make them bad people, and in fact they become more sympathetic as they take stock of how their self-righteous closed-mindedness has affected their personalities and lives.

Mary's shift from unquestioning member of the faithful flock to experimental and open unwed teen mother acts as the catalyst for the other characters' exploration of living life only in black and white biblical terms. It's an interesting examination, but the film never becomes heavy-handed or preachy, mainly due to its comedic aspect and focus on characters as opposed to Life, The Universe, And Everything. And that's something I really like about it. Saved! is incredibly funny, with excellent dialogue and some great visual gags, but still manages to take a stand on several tough religious issues. I could relate to several parts of the film (not the getting pregnant part, but I did go to a Catholic school and I do hate religion), so I think the fact that I agreed with so much of it really endeared it to me.

Of course the movie is primarily light, aside from all this babble about religion. The cast is stellar: Eva Amurri is gorgeous and just cool, Macaulay Culkin is surprisingly attractive and appropriately droll, Jena Malone does the innocent-girl-with-problems thing that she's so good at, and Patrick Fugit is so, so adorable. I dig Martin Donovan in anything (aka every Hal Hartley film), and Mary-Louise Parker is great but under-used here. Mandy Moore I have always found incredibly annoying in any medium, but playing a bitchy religious fanatic with a mullet turns out to be very much her thing, so great job, casting directors. It was also nice to see Heather Matarazzo as a girl who really wants to be "cool" (aka super Christian) like Hilary-Faye, but always ends up saying the wrong thing. There aren't really any "small" characters in Saved!; everybody has their own thing going on, and no one exists just to move along Mary's story, which was nice and felt realistic.

Yeah so in case you haven't guessed, this is totally one of my favorite movies. There's something very comforting about it. It's just so well put together, and the likability of the characters always keeps me coming back. It's all kind of uplifting, somehow? Dannelly is working on another movie and I think has a television show in the works which draws from Saved!, which is exciting. I really like the way he dealt with these issues in such straightforward but funny and relatable ways, so I definitely look forward to whatever else he does.


"Flowers in the Window" by Travis (great song to end the movie)