A film directed by Brian Dannely
written by Brian Dannely and Michael Urban
This new film - the second feature from the German-born Brian Dannely - written by him and Michael Urban - is an unlikely amalgam of social satire and romantic comedy. Set in a fundamentalist Christian High School, it takes on the mind set of that culture in ways that are both biting and (appropriately) forgiving. With a charming cast and an intelligent script the film, while slightly flawed, is well worth the time invested to watch it.
The story centers around thoughtful (and aptly named) Mary (Jena Malone) - who enters her senior year after having had the world-shaking revelation during the summer that her "perfect Christian boyfriend" Dean (Chad Faust) has discovered that he is gay. In the midst of the confusion and dislocation this "impossible" revelation engenders, Mary turns to Jesus - and believes that she has a vision that instructs her to try to "save" Dean by having sex with him.
Although Mary's actions don't have the desired outcome, they do have another predictable consequence - she becomes pregnant. Her struggle to come to grips with her situation, and the actions and reactions of those around her form the core of the story.
Dean is spirited away to a faith-based "treatment center" that seeks to cure his homosexuality - yet is so clueless that it puts him in a dorm room with another young man "suffering" from the same problem. Mary - whose predicament gives her pause to consider her "virgin" namesake's history in a new light - has to deal with her self-absorbed mother, her classmates and her changing identity within the cocoon of the Christian persona she has created around herself.
She finds herself alienated from her former friends in The Christian Jewels - a group that sings modern Christian music - and especially it's lead singer and all-around school "leader" Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Her predicament leads her to question their rote pronouncements about homosexuality, sexual behavior in general, the whole idea of "God's Plan," and many of the other axioms on which her fundamentalist "faith" has been built.
She is thrown into the company of Jewish rebel-gurrrl Cassandra (Eva Amurri) - who ended up at American Eagle Christian School as a last resort after having been expelled from her previous schools. As embodied by Amurri, Cassandra is a breath of fresh - and I do mean fresh - air in the repressive, artificial atmosphere of the school. She offers many of the best satirical observations on the conventions of her classmates and their self-imposed system and the internal contradictions and pomposities of a world-view that takes itself far too seriously and tries to come up with a far too simplistic answers to the moral complexities of actual life.
Cassandra has also taken under her iconoclastic wing Heather Faye's disabled brother Roland (Macaulay Caulkin), paralysed from the waist down by a childhood accident. She encourages him to express himself and break free of the cloying and infantilising patronage offered by his sister. He reveals a streak of insightful realism tempered by a vulnerable but powerful capacity for affection that helps create one of the most complex and interesting relationships in the film.
In the meantime, Mary is having approach-avoidance conflicts about Patrick (Patrick Fugit), son of the school's principal Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). Because of her secret condition, she feels herself "unworthy" of him, while obviously flattered by his attention and attracted to him as well. The resolution of this relationship - which is actually more of a sub-plot in the scheme of the whole film - eventually becomes the point around which the story is brought to a close.
Along the way Dannely and Urban pause to poke fun at such targets as Pastor Skip's lame attempts to ingratiate himself with the students by talking in a sort of stilted hip-hop language. They cast an ironic glance at the self-importance of "organized religious" organizations with the symbol of a twenty-foot-tall student-built representation of Jesus that serves in several sight-gags.
They satirize the egotism and self-righteousness involved, in a scene concerning a meeting called by Hilary Faye to pray for Dean. They gently chide the indiscriminate credulousness of true-believers when Mary has a revelation of Christ's purpose for her based on hitting her head on a swimming pool fixture, nearly drowning and being rescued by a long-haired, bearded garden-laborer.
The ensemble of characters add breadth and depth - not to mention comic relief - to the script. They frame many of the issues that surround the quest for a spiritual center in modern-day America, that the fundamentalist Christian movement represents. From using scripture as a weapon (both literally and figuratively) to the idea of visions, prayer and discipleship as a defense against and substitute for potentially dangerous and unpredictable first-hand experience, Saved uses humor to raise serious and profound questions about the nature of true spirituality
But the satire is good natured and kindly. By contrast to the wickedly-black comedy Election - which it in some way resembles - Saved pulls its punches. In fact, some of the truly bitter and painful conflicts in which fundamentalist Christianity has involved itself - the condemnation of homosexuality, intolerance of differing religious views, the bitter debate over abortion, the overlap of church and state - are side-stepped here. While that is appropriate in some ways given the film's limited ambitions, it leaves an aftertaste of "what might have been" that makes Saved - for all its cleverness and success - seem a bit of an "underachiever."
The cast make the film work. The actors mostly avoid overplaying their roles -which would have been an easy trap into which to fall.
Jena Malone embodies Mary as believably naive and innocent but also gives her an intelligence and wit that makes the widening spiral of questioning her situation triggers entirely sympathetic and believable. She makes Mary vulnerable without making her weak or a victim - in fact, it is her vulnerability that ultimately leads her to recognition and expression of her own strength.
Eva Amurri brings Cassandra to life with great enthusiasm. A trope on the classic rebel-outsider, Cassandra is a fish out of water, but one who clings to her integrity and a self-generated sense of right and wrong that raises her above the sad reactionaries many such characters turn out to be. Amurri is Susan Sarandon's daughter and like her mother she is able to project a wonderful - and very true to life - shifting mixture of feminine nurturing and feminine power that goes a long way to giving such a character depth and dimension.
Macaulay Caulkin - an actor who is struggling to overcome the simple-minded, cloying and infantile roles of his past - scores big here. In Roland he creates a character who is disabled, but perfectly "normal" about his disability. His awakening to himself, under the guiding spirit of Cassandra, is one of the tenderest and most compelling emotional moments in the film. Caulkin inhabits the self-deprecating Roland with an easy grace that makes his cross-commentary on the action (he has many of the best lines) incisive without ever seeming unkind.
Patrick Fugit's character is a sort of attractive cipher - the least fully developed of all the major characters and largely a mirror for the others. Fugit has the courage and humility (or is it the direction?) to underplay him as the script requires, doing a workmanlike job with a part that is roughly equivalent to "the girl" in action-adventure films.
Martin Donovan and Mary Louise Parker also do a lot with a little as Pastor Skip and Mary's mother, Lillian - whose secret relationship is another variation on the themes of hypocrisy and false morality that center the movie's satire.
Donovan's Skip wants to be sincere and is genuinely troubled about his insincerity while at the same time clueless about the way his use of what he imagines is the teen-age idiom makes him appear. Parker shows Lillian lost in a self-absorption that allows her to miss the obvious signs of her daughter's condition, yet aspiring to be a loving person and a good parent. Heather Matarazzo - whose performance in Welcome To The Dollhouse presaged great things - attacks her small part here with gusto, creating some fine comic moments as well as contributing a lot - in subtle but meaningful ways - to the overall emotional tone.
The one slightly over-broad character is Mandy Moore's Heather Faye. It is interesting to note that Moore - who also sings the film's opening and end credit songs - started her performing career as a Christian singer. Her characterization of the self-righteous, ego-driven, hypocritical "school leader" has moments of brilliance, but occasionally crosses the line into caricature. This is probably more the fault of the script - and Director Dannely's inability to identify and eliminate such moments - than it is Moore's craft as an actor. She has several scenes where she shows that she can explore the complicated self-deceptions of Heather Faye with restraint and resource - and let the character's unintentional self-parody speak for itself.
This is only the second feature from Dannely, and the first writing credit for Urban. Given that limited experience, the film is a fine effort. It is a little scattered by its interweaving of romantic comedy and satire - a difficult combination to pull off even for seasoned film-makers - and in trying to serve two masters it withholds from its commitment to each, leaving a result that is not wholly satisfying on either level.
Still, there is a lot to laugh at and even a lot to think about. As my friend Carol reflected, it is a film about losing one's religion and finding one's faith - a topic that is highly relevant to most of our lives in the America of the first decade of the Twenty-first Century.
That's my take on it. What's yours?