Critical Acceptance

Saved provides a smart critique of the evangelical teen subculture

I went to Saved , a new comedy about teenagers in a Christian high school expecting to get a few laughs at the expense of bible-based yokels. What I got instead was an entertaining, intelligent and surprisingly subtle teen comedy that pokes fun at the simplistic thinking and hypocrisy of white-suburban-conservative-evangelical culture.

Jena Malone plays Mary, a devout teen who accepted Jesus as her personal savior at the ripe old age of three. She attends the American Eagle Christian Academy a cliquish school where a towering billboard-esque icon of Jesus greets the students outside of the schoolhouse. Inside the classroom a picture of George W. Bush looms in the background while a buffoonish evangelical minister/principal addresses a Christian rock school assembly with things like ‘let’s get your Christ on.’

Mary has a Christian boyfriend, who confesses to her one day that he thinks he’s gay. This provides the initial conflict for Mary, as she struggles with questions of how to help him overcome his ‘perversion’ while remaining true to herself, her beliefs, and him. The result: Mary gets pregnant and her boyfriend sent way to overcome his gayness at the Mercy House ‘recovery’ center.

Tammy Faye Baker doppelganger Hillary-Faye, played brilliantly by Mandy Moore is the teen-queen leader who plans prayer services and sings to the sways of the student body at these Jesus-based assemblies. Her father is a major donor to the school and it’s clear that her affluence is the reason for her popularity. Hillary Faye remains undaunted in her entitled behavior and in her attempts to save souls (especially the soul of the school’s one chain smoking Jewish student-who has been rumored to be a stripper).

The pastor’s skateboarding son enters the picture as a messiah hero, who combats his father’s literalism with a practical concern for Mary and those who are ostracized. He respects Mary because she had the guts to stand up for herself during one of Hillary Faye’s frightening prayer circles for homosexuals.

Calling into question much of what the major religions hold as truth (especially the literalism of fundamentalism, but also the Virgin Mary’s place in Catholic teaching), Saved is more than a rant against religion. It is a call to look more deeply at religious belief and to rail against the culture of the “blessed rich” and those who resort to bible thumping as a solution to all moral dilemmas and questions of lifestyle.

Saved is a movie of concern in the best sense of the term. We learn that we are called to be concerned for one another despite the fact that circumstances may be less than ideal. Life is messy and God is there in the brokenness of confused teen-agers struggling with sexuality, pregnancy, body image, and popularity. Adults too struggle with infidelity, child-rearing, and the convergence of religious belief with everyday circumstance.

While Malone and Moore shine, it is Macaulay Caulkin who delivers some of the funniest lines in the movie as Hillary Faye’s sarcastic and prophetic handicapped brother. Caulkin reinvents himself in a way that will make audiences forget his former Home Alone franchise. His timing is flawless and his acting superb throughout.

Saved reveals what can happen at the intersection of strict religious doctrine and real life. Though the premise may sound cartoonish, poignant moments uncover the characters’ deeper humanity and eloquently lead the audience to the conclusion that salvation involves more than just scripture and lip gloss.