Faith takes a hip, raised-eyebrow beating in this biting yet surprisingly earnest dark comedy about the trials and tribulations of a Christian teenager whose eyes are suddenly opened to the real truth.
Mary (Jena Malone) -- born again at the age of 3 and an unquestioning bible thumper ever since -- is about to start her senior year at American Eagle Christian High School, and God is smiling on her. She and her pretty, devout friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) are popular, she has a handsome boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), and she religiously rocks out at Christian concerts. The first sign of trouble is when ice-skating, chastity embracing Dean tells Mary he thinks he's gay. Determined to bring her man back to the Lord, Mary makes a deal with Jesus: She'll seduce Dean if the Lamb of God then restores her ''emotional'' and ''spiritual'' virginity. Cut to a few weeks later: Dean-o's been packed off to sexuality rehab, Mary can't keep her breakfast down, and all of a sudden Jesus is looking a lot less like a pal and a lot more like a used car salesman. With the core of her faith shrinking as her belly is expanding, Mary sees her peers in a whole new light -- ''perfect'' Hilary Faye has plenty of flaws, and ''bad girl'' Cassandra (Eva Amurri) might not be the spawn of Satan after all. All of which helps Mary and company discover what being a Christian really means -- just in time for prom!
The cast of Saved! is almost as eclectic a mix as a real high school class. Malone, Amurri (Susan Sarandon's daughter), Patrick Fugit (as alterna-cutie skateboarder Patrick), and Heather Matarazzo (as blunt hanger-on Tia) are all card-carrying members of the Hip Indie Actors club, while Moore and Macaulay Culkin (as Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother Roland) come from the Much-Mocked Pop Culture Icon school. All acquit themselves admirably, with Moore and Amurri as particular standouts. Moore has Hilary Faye's mix of smug self-entitlement and hollow concern nailed: This is one pop tart who knows how to play a sugar-coated bitch. Her showy piousness is particularly amusing when you contrast it with her PAX-worthy performance as a doomed preacher's daughter in A Walk to Remember. Playing American Eagle's token Jewish student, Amurri expertly offers glimpses of tough-talking Cassandra's inner vulnerability and warm heart; her scenes with Culkin's wryly cynical Roland are some of the movie's best. Malone is occasionally a bit tepid, but her sparks with Fugit seem real. The token adult actors -- Mary-Louise Parker as Mary's trashy, widowed mother, Lillian, and Martin Donovan as principal Pastor Skip (whose insecurity almost overwhelms his own faith) -- also turn in strong performances.
Saved! made its debut at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and it's not hard to see why: Brian Dannelly's film has ''indie'' written all over it. Dannelly deserves credit for pushing the envelope as far as he has -- suffice it to say that Saved! probably won't go over so well in the heartland (or even the suburbs) -- but the film isn't a total success. Its mix of dark humor and sincere sentiment is a bit jarring; just when you're guffawing at Dannelly's send-up of ''hip Christianity'' in the form of Pastor Skip's unbelievably lame attempts to connect with his young flock (''let's get our Christ on!'') or Hilary Faye's forceful attempts to perform a drive-by saving on the wayward Mary, you land with a bump as Mary and her mom share a quiet moment or Patrick and his dad exchange some tense words. It's obvious that Dannelly didn't want Saved! to be dismissed as mere parody, but the film strays too far into spoof territory to be a drama, and vice versa.
Heathers, this ain't, but a strong cast -- particularly teen songbird Mandy Moore -- and a sharp sense of humor make Saved! a natural for the indie crowd.