The early word from MGM about its movie "Saved!"-a teen comedy set on a Christian high school campus--was that it would appeal to hardcore Christians as well as the rest of the nation-the very miracle performed by "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's imagining of the crucifixion. Why this would not pan out could be the subject of a dissertation on the Christian-mainstream divide in America, but the short answer is that the crucifixion is an event known to millions, and Gibson presented it in a rendering so devout that it bordered on the fanatical.

By contrast, "Saved!" requires some knowledge of the deepest hearts of Christian evangelicals, a group we hear a lot about, but whose culture is so unknown to the rest of us that insiders refer to it as "the bubble." The pity of "Saved!" is its best jokes will go straight over the heads of the unitiated, while the already saved will likely resent its rather pawky conclusions.

"Saved!" is the story of Mary, a senior at American Eagle Christian Academy near Baltimore. Her mom has just been named Christian Interior Decorator of the Year, and she has become a "Christian Jewel"-one of the elite girls who run the prayer meetings on Friday nights, organize the prom and chastely date the cute guys. Except for the fact that she's living in the End Times, she tells us, Mary's life is just great.

Mary, however, is trying to convince herself as much as us. Even before a conk on the head and a vision of Jesus prompt her to sleep with her boyfriend, Dean, to save him from homosexuality, Mary, played with a wonderful blankness by Jena Malone, suspects there is a saner world beyond American Eagle Christian Academy. How could there not be? The school principal, Pastor Skip, greets the kids with, "Are you ready to get your Jesus on?" and American Eagle's most popular girl distinguishes between "physical virginity" and "spiritual virginity" protecting both by keeping her pistol skills sharp. When Mary turns up pregnant from her single encounter with Dean, she appears to be on her way to falling out of her sheltered world altogether.

As any evangelical under 25 or anyone who's survived a Christian booksellers' convention will attest, hip-talking pastors and Christian Martha Stewarts actually exist and are in dire need of spoofing. Director Brian Danelly and screenwriter Michael Urban, former inmates of the Christian bubble themselves, are sweetly acerbic about them as only true veterans can be. "I've been born-again my whole life," explains our heroine, with the exhaustion of one who aspires to the zeal of a convert when zealous faith is all she's known. At this juncture, "Saved!" seems nervy enough to be loving and satirical, funny and truthful.

But by the time "Saved!" ends, as teen flicks must, with a showdown at the school prom, the movie has become as much a spoof of Hollywood as Christianity. Any character with a grain of sense has lost his or her faith. Anyone clinging to a grain of faith has been exposed as a hypocrite. When a pack of gay teenagers including Mary's Dean commandeers a van to crash the big night, Pastor Skip advises them to return the stolen vehicle before they get in trouble. Mary perceives that Skip is more concerned that the school not be sullied by the presence of their kind. "The Bible doesn't give you the right to control people's lives," she shrieks at him.

Tolerance is a bedrock value, and needs to be fought for, even when Massachusetts is marrying all comers and "Queer Eye" is a hit show. But Mary's plea would be more compelling if American Eagle Christian Academy weren't created as a realm where traditional interpretations of the Bible can hold sway. How dare Christians enforce their codes of conduct in their own schools!

One gets the creeping sense that American Eagle is not meant to be a bit of Christian turf near Baltimore after all, but a microcosm of America. Mary, the teen mom, is criminalized by the (Christian) authorities, jilted by the popular crowd and has to resort to the protection of a rebellious Jewish girl and a handicapped kid in a wheelchair. As Mary's alternative family huddles by her locker, it's clear that her salvation is not in Jesus, but in her demotion to the rank of outsider.

It's instructive to view movies as the dream life of the nation, where we hash out our fantasies and phobias. Sure it's just a summer teen comedy, but "Saved!" is also a horror flick that signals the mainstream's current obsession with evangelicals. "It's like those monster vampire high-school kind of movies," the film's co-producer, REM lead singer Michael Stipe said in the movie's publicity kit. "Only here the monsters are Jesus-freak teenagers." When Mary gives her speech, she isn't speaking truth to power. She's letting in the shaft of sunlight that vanquishes the Bible-toting monster in our midst.

"Saved!" doesn't really have anything to say to Christians, or nothing new, anyway. At the end of the movie, Mary falls back on asking, "What would Jesus do?"-the phrase from those bracelets evangelicals used to wear in the '90s, and precisely the kind of freelance interpretation that got Mary pregnant in the first place.

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