The new movie “Saved!” doesn’t have a prayer of avoiding scorn from the Christian faithful. The tale of an emotionally lost student at a Christian high school uses humor to jab, jab, jab at the institution’s strict tenets. The punches may be thrown with pillows affixed to the gloves, but they’ll still sting in some quarters.
For less devout audiences, the movie’s subversive subtext will be scarcely noticeable amid its humorous vignettes and kindhearted characters.
Mary (Jena Malone), and don’t think that name is an accident, finds her teenage world crumbling when her boyfriend comes out of the closet to her.
Her religious upbringing didn’t prepare her for this contingency, so she follows her immature faith to the conclusion that she’d better bed him quickly to steer him back toward heterosexuality.
Of course, their passionate night leaves her pregnant, hardly the best state to be in as a senior at American Eagle Christian High School.
She does all she can to hide the news from her friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), who embodies Christian ideals at their most strident. The filmmakers wisely cast the squeaky-clean Miss Moore in the part, giving the actress her first three-dimensional role.
“Saved!” has only one mean girl in its lineup, but Hilary is surly enough to put the aspiring divas in Tina Fey’s new comedy to shame.
Hilary cries out that she’s filled with Christ’s love, but her devotion to her own elevated standing in the school social structure is her true higher power.
The film’s heroes are Mary’s brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin), a paraplegic, and a Jewish student played by Eva Amurri, Susan Sarandon’s daughter and a puckish presence. Both are immune to theology’s allure, though neither is mean-spirited enough to want the system to crumble.
Meanwhile, Mary’s barely-there flirtation with Patrick (Patrick Fugit from “Almost Famous”) is given so little screen time that it’s a wonder it didn’t get excised entirely.
What will save the film from even sterner denunciation than it’s likely to provoke is the surprising mercy extended to Hilary after her eventual downfall. It’s the most noble part of a film that stays too long in attack mode.
Miss Malone supplies a sweet and vulnerable Everyteen, although the actress needs a colorful supporting crew to bring her to full life.
Sometimes the film’s sugary delivery falters, especially with some heavy-handed imagery in the final reel.
“Saved!” works best when it tweaks Christian modernizers’ adoption of hip slang, but at its heart is its implied criticism of the church’s traditional reluctance to embrace our flaws. The film also could have deflected some heat by bolstering the headmaster’s role. As played by Martin Donovan, Pastor Skip stands on the verge of heroism but wavers too long for us to lean on him.
Even when the film’s heart appears to be in the right place, the narrative’s clunky pace bogs down the humor.
“Saved!” won’t make fans of “The Passion of the Christ” feel that Hollywood has turned a corner, but, given the subject matter, the satire could have bitten far deeper than it does in “Saved!”
RATING: PG-13 (Sexual content, strong language and mature situations)
CREDITS: Directed by Brian Dannelly. Written by Mr. Dannelly and Michael Urban. Produced by Michael Stipe, William Vince, Michael Ohoven and Sandy Stern.
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
WEB SITE: www.savedmovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS