Three revelations arise while watching Saved! The first is that Macaulay Culkin is actually capable of a finely nuanced, genuinely credible performance. The second is the blazing arrival of Eva Amurri, daughter of Susan Sarandon, who is supremely blessed with her mother’s acting chops. The third is the movie’s director and co-writer himself, Brian Dannelly. It’s a rare occasion when a director’s first-time feature hits precisely the right balance between commercial appeal and independent fortification, between bold satire and abiding respect for its subject. If Saved! is any indication, Dannelly is a natural. Let’s just pray his gifts are not mishandled by the Hollywood heathens.
Saved! is the best time I’ve had at the movies so far this summer. It knocks the bobby socks off other teen-based comedies, including 13 Going on 30 and Mean Girls, eschewing a skit-based construct for a fully-realized narrative thread. And if its holy waters don’t run all that deep, at least it makes the attempt to explore an intelligent theme.
If Saved! has a failing, it’s that it’s not sure who its audience is. Though it’s being heavily marketed to gays, the movie’s primary homosexual character, Dean, is merely a catalyst from which the greater narrative erupts. Dean’s not exactly an afterthought, but neither is he a pivotal figure in the bulk of the film.
The pivotal figure is Mary (Jena Malone), a senior at the American Eagle Christian High School in Baltimore. Mary is part of the Christ in-crowd — led with Bible-thumping fanaticism by Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), a young evangelist who has avoids all things sinful, which is not to say that Hilary doesn’t sin. She just does so with what she thinks is the Lord’s blessing.
All is neat and tidy in their sequestered world until Dean reveals to Mary that he’s gay. Desperate to save her friend from “faggotry,” Mary sleeps with him — thinking that it’s what Jesus wants. (She also naively believes that Jesus will restore her virginity.) Not only is Dean sent to Mercy House for reparative therapy, but the girl finds herself with child. Mary questions her faith — and in doing so, alienates herself from the school’s devout, taking up instead with Hilary Faye’s disabled, cynical brother Roland (Culkin) and the renegade Cassandra (Amurri), the only Jewish student at the school, whom Hilary eternally and desperately tries to convert. Meanwhile, Mary fends off the gently romantic advances of Patrick (Patrick Fugit), son of the school’s pastor, and strives to keep her pregnancy a secret lest she, too, be shipped off to Mercy House.
The narrative plays out like a dozen other high school comedies. What’s different here is Dannelly’s sharply penned script, co-written with Michael Urban, which features an abundance of small, funny details, and his uncompromising look at the strain many religions put on their followers, demanding nothing less than perfection from imperfect human vessels.
Dannelly lampoons his subject with such enormous love that he can be forgiven his need to serve up an ending that’s a little too neat. Still, by movie’s end, all the characters have grown in one way or another, have learned a lesson of tolerance, and find themselves in a better place whence they began.