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Saved

In the wake of the “Fahrenheit 9/11” furor followed so quickly by the national release of the next chapter in the life our favorite web-slinging superhero most folks probably haven’t heard of this film.

“Saved!” simply became lost in the shuffle a midst all the hullabaloo and things that seemed so controversial four weeks ago now seems almost benign. Almost.

If you are evangelical, charismatic, dig Christian rock music, own at least one item besides a Bible that you feel demonstrates your faith in God, or find yourself frequently offended when people poke-fun at you, then watch out—somewhere along the line “Saved!” wriggles right inside our Christian comfort zones and the stomping of toes does soon commence.

Evangelicals are certain to decry this movie the same way many Catholics did with “Dogma” because they are the primary targets of this lampoon; the school, the worship scenes, the prayer circles, and the rhetoric contained in the film are dead-on representations of most mainstream evangelical movements. There’s even a little vulgar tongue-in-cheek about speaking in tongues. None of these things bothered me in the slightest about “Saved!” because I am neither evangelical nor charismatic just as “Dogma” didn’t offend me because I’m not Catholic but even if I were evangelical, charismatic, or Catholic, I still doubt I’d be offended by “Saved!” I have never been into Christian rock music and I detest Christian merchandising. My feathers aren’t easily ruffled when it comes to portraying religious people in a off-hand way and while I do freely confess to be “down with G-O-D”, I never bought into the W.W.J.D. catchphrase that swept the Christian community a few years back. But I do firmly believe that God has a profound sense of humor. To steal from a better writer, “Just look at the platypus!”

Here’s the deal—the only way a film works is if its characters are real and believable and unfortunately they are all too real and believable in “Saved!” There’s the sincere pastor/principal Skip (Martin Donovan) who is so busy trying to make God look cool for the kids he can’t see the duplicity in his own life, and his son Patrick played by Patrick Fugit (“Almost Famous”). Patrick’s ambiguity towards his faith as a P-K (that’s Preacher’s/Pastor’s Kid for those scoring at home) was such a reflection of my own adolescence I could have just switched out his skateboard for my football and looked straight into a mirror. All the kooky characters scripted by Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban essentially represent the struggle to find and personalize faith. Consider Jena Malone’s (“Donnie Darko”, “Cheaters”) aptly named Mary; she has a disillusioned faith and Roland (Macaulay Culkin—yes that Macaulay Culkin) rejects faith outright mostly because he is a paraplegic; Tia (Heather Matarazzo) possesses a blind-follower faith at best, and Cassandra’s (Eva Amurri) “don’t tell me how to have faith, you hypocrite” kind of faith completes the gambit. Exaggerated? Yes. Clichéd? Absolutely not! Instead these characters are highly symbolic representations of teenagers today and their struggle to find a faith of their own and to Dannelly’s credit (who also directed) all the actors give solid performances.

Which brings us to the greatest character of all—Hilary Faye, a villainess so powerful and believable her name will be forever etched in my mind. She is the type of Christian we all seem to know. A blessedly wicked creation, she is “The Church Lady”, two of the “Heathers”, a “Sybil”, and Stephen King’s “Carrie” all rolled up into one good-looking package. On the surface, Hillary Faye is beautiful but just under that surface bubbles a self-centered bitterness—a bitterness that will inevitably cause her to pop like a zit and thus reveal the true ugliness she feels inside.

Mandy Moore gives a delightfully nasty performance carving out quite a niche as the arch-villainess in “Saved!” She deftly breathes life into Hilary Faye ensuring that she will go down as one greatest bad-girl character’s ever written. Her self-serving behavior is equaled only by her vain conceit. Hilary Faye believes her seemingly abstinent lifestyle somehow entitles her to a life of special privileges, not only from Pastor Skip but also from God. After all, she is the one making all the sacrifices. She’s holier-than-thou, prepared to pass judgment in a single breath, and she’ll do anything to show you just how evil you are. She’s the kind of girl that says, “I know what you’re looking at… and so does Jesus!” while secretly desiring the same thing; a plank/speck kind of gal who’ll never see the plank in her eye until it comes crashing down on her tricked-out “JC-GIRL” van. Mandy Moore has truly honed her craft in the past few years.

This movie is a dark comedy, very reminiscent of “Heathers” and therefore any comparison between the two cannot be helped. “Saved!” doesn’t really try to be “tight” with the teens, but rather seems content to show how modern Christian teens desperately long to be just as cool and demonstrate that they can have just as much fun as their non-Christian counterparts. One character muses, “Skateboarding for the Lord? Is nothing sacred to you people?” Indeed. “Heathers” mocked popularity and peer pressure; “Saved!” mocks hypocrisy, Christian merchandising, Christian naivety, Christian assimilation of pop culture, as well as peer pressure and popularity, but contrary to what some may think it does not mock God. It just happens to mock some of God’s most delusional followers, like those who think everything is a sign from Jesus. One girl in the film has sex with a boy because she thinks Jesus wouldn’t want him to be the homosexual he thinks he is, another spray paints vulgarities at the school because she thinks Jesus wants her to frame some other kids in order to purge the bad seeds from her precious school. And Pastor Skip tops them all when he insanely muses that a student’s pregnancy is God’s punishment for his affair with that student’s mom. All of this might be offensive if I didn’t actually know Christians who applied this kind of logic to their lives on a daily basis.

“Saved!” gets a little preachy in parts, especially at the prom. (Isn’t there just something genuinely weird about a Christian rock band playing at a prom dance?) Many reviewers have said its message is one of Christian tolerance. I disagree. The message preached throughout “Saved!” is one of compassion, not tolerance and there is a big difference between the two. The message is simple: we are all sinners and we all need faith. We could all stand to learn from the compassion of our Lord and Savior and learn to love the sinner without embracing the sin. How’s that for getting a little preachy?

So-called sinners are treated like lepers throughout the story as they are sent away to a place called “Mercy House”, a special home for kids from Christian families who have developed drug problems, drinking problems, homosexual problems, pregnancy problems, and whatever kind of problems Gen-X Christian parents don’t want inside in their perfect little problem free microcosms. “‘Mercy House’ doesn’t exist for the kids who get sent there as much as it does for the people who send them there,” the P-K astutely observes. Out of sight, out of mind. It is the kind of compassionless mentality that does seem to creep into our lives when we forget about the Grace of God. Without it, we’d all by lepers in his sight. Jesus Christ didn’t just die for the perverts, homosexuals, pregnant teens, and Jewish princesses in this world. Hilary Faye’s selfishness, jealousy, backbiting, gossip, and cruelty remind us that we all need Jesus Christ. In many ways, I used to be Hilary Faye. In some ways, I still am. I guess we all have a little Hilary Faye in us and that’s why this story works so well. Don’t worry, even Hilary Faye finds redemption by the end of the story and that’s good news for all who are “Saved!”

“Saved!” is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for strong thematic issues, sexual content, pregnancy, smoking, and language. Hmm? Sounds like high school to me, even a Christian high school, though obviously this movie is not for kids. It contains many talking points for Christian parents brave enough to take their teen to see this film, but lets be clear—it is not for everybody. Some Christians are likely to deem “Saved!” blasphemous (but I don’t think it is) while others will not relish the thought of seeing a bit of themselves parodied up on the big screen. I imagine there are still others who think the writer’s had some kind of vendetta against Christians, but I think this is a naïve point view. I couldn’t find anything in this film that would lead me to infer that Dannelly or Urban have anything against Christians. On the contrary, “Saved!” offers much food for thought as to what we Christians ought to be. Just don’t go see it if you are easily offended.

“Saved!” is not as important a film as it pretends to be and maybe that’s part of its charm. I do hereby officially confess that I loved this film. From the first note of that catchy Beach Boy’s tagline “God only knows what I’d be without you,” to the super-mongo, overly simplistic happy-ending. Maybe the ending itself is satirical? I don’t know. Regardless, I give “Saved!” my highest rating—HOT DATE—because it is worth full price admission for yourself and your favorite person in the world. Just help a brother out with a little compassion, would you? There’s no telling when a positive review of this film is going to come back to haunt me.

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