The first thing teenagers figure out is that it is enticingly easy to make fun of believers in any category. What’s nice about this movie is that it does so while still entirely respectful of belief. It begins as a satire of new age-y holier than thou people who spend more time worrying about the appearance of Christianity than the values. But it concludes with a renewed commitment to a faith that engages the mind and heart. You could even call it grace.
Mary (Jena Malone) is about to start her senior year at the Eagle Mountain Christian School when her boyfriend Dean confesses that he thinks he is gay. She decides to “save” him (from homosexuality and sin) by having sex with him, believing that it will not count as losing her virginity if it is for such a holy purpose. But Dean’s parents find gay porn in his room and send him off to a special facility called Mercy House where he can be “cured” (or as they put it “for de-gayification.”)
Mary finds out that she is pregnant, and that makes her begin to question whether the faith she has accepted as it was presented to her is a fair portrayal of the teachings of Jesus.
The people behind the movie, who went to Christian schools, know where the vulnerable targets are. There’s the relentlessly cheery head of the school Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), reminiscient of the “Doonesbury” character who used to call himself “the fighting young priest who can talk to the young.” He tries to connect to the kids by using words like “phat,” not realizing that even if he did happen to come upon a word whose coolness had not been exhausted, the very act of its being used by him would de-cool-ify it forevermore. Mary’s widowed mother Lillian (Mary Louise Parker), is proud of winning And there’s the school’s “mean girl,” Hillary Faye (Mandy Moore), who uses her literal “holier-than-thou” status to rule the school, especially her in-crowd group, called the Christian Jewels. On the other side because they are willing to ask questions are the school’s only Jewish student, Cassandra (Eva Amurri), who is only there because she has been thrown out of every other school, Hillary Faye’s brother Roland (Macauley Culkin), confined to a wheelchair due to a childhood accident, and Pastor Skip’s son Patrick (Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous), who is interested in Mary.
The script teeters into predictability at times but the outstanding young cast is wonderfully vibrant, especially Amurri (the daughter of Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon), whose freshness — in both senses of the word — works very well for her character. Donovan makes it clear that his character is genuinely a man of faith who is not quite sure if he has what it takes to inspire others to share what he feels so strongly in his heart. He refers to Jesus as “the ultimate rebel” to capture the attention of the students, but he himself is all about conformity and rigidity. He uses a facile notion of Christianity to cover his unwillingness to be honest with himself or others about his failing marriage and his feelings for Lillian. And Hillary Faye uses hers the way girls in secular schools use chic clothes or their status as cheerleaders, to establish her power and prestige. She, too, has a secret that fuels her need to control the way she is perceived.
The movie is not afraid to skewer its targets, but importantly it is careful to make those targets hypocrisy and arrogance and not faith. Indeed, the movie makes it clear that superficial professions of faith are a distraction from genuine commitment to the values that are the basic principles of Christianity or any religion.
Parents should know that the movie has very mature material for a PG-13, including extremely strong language and explicit sexual references and situations, including adultery, teen sex, and homosexuality. Characters smoke (smoking is portrayed as an indicator of being cool and rebellious) and drink. Characters shoot guns at a target range and there is some mild violence (no one hurt). Strengths of the movie include the positive portrayal of disabled and gay characters and the ultimate conclusion about the importance of seeking the real meaning of the Bible’s teachings.
Families who see this movie should talk about how they think about their own religion and the religions practiced by others. Mary asks “Why would God make us all different if He wanted us to be the same?”
Families who enjoy this movie might also like to see Steve Martin’s uneven but worthwhile Leap of Faith, and will especially enjoy its outstanding soundtrack.