In Saved! it's all Jesus all the time at American Eagle Christian High School, where one girl announces, "I think Jesus appeared to me in my fish tank last night" and Pastor Skip, the principal, leads the chant "Jesus rules!" at the school assembly.
But there's trouble in this little bit of paradise in suburban Maryland, what with a character named Mary hoping for a virgin birth, her boyfriend sent off to a Christian center to cure his homosexuality and everyone trying to save Cassandra Edelstein, the school's bad girl and lone Jew, from eternal damnation.
Over this troubled scene looms a 20-foot-tall wooden cutout of Jesus, to whom just about everyone prays, but who answers their prayers in the most mysterious ways.
Writer-director Brian Dannelly's Saved! (co-written with Michael Urban) is an often hilarious coming-of-age tale that sets out to spoof the Christian Right and the cruel horrors of high school and succeeds most of the time.
"I've been born again my whole life," says Mary (Jena Malone) at the start of Saved! Mary believes she has received a message from Jesus in her swimming pool to save her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) from his gayness by showing him the joys of heterosexuality. The maneuver doesn't work too well on Dean, who is quickly sent packing to a Christian center that promises to cure everything from alcoholism to homosexuality. And it leaves Mary's faith in God shaken when her prayers aren't answered in the way she had dreamed, finding herself knocking one day on the offices of Planned Parenthood.
Well, maybe that's not so bad at first glance. When Cassandra (Eva Amurri) slyly tells her new wheelchair-bound beau Roland (Macaulay Culkin) that "there's only one reason for a Christian girl to go to Planned Parenthood," he replies, "To plant a pipe bomb?"Dannelly and Urban have given Saved! a very funny setup, laugh-out-loud situations and comedy sketch lines, placing it at a high school where "most of the boys look like NASA employees" in their squareness and the girls organize a prom around a rock band that sings only songs about heavenly redemption. But soon Saved! begins treading very close to becoming an overblown parody in its ham-fisted skewering of the unquestioning faith of its characters, something which seems designed to offend Christian Fundamentalists. Its saving grace is that every young actor plays his or her role straight and with such sincerity that they keep hold of our goodwill until the film's message of tolerance and understanding is given a chance to germinate.
Happily, none of the characters is blemish free. Even straight-arrow Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), who is flirting with Mary's mother (Mary-Louise Parker), has his problems, keeping a loveless marriage intact for the sake of his son.
With doubts about the worth of God and prayer in her life growing every day that her baby grows inside her, Mary begins to question her faith. She begins to see through the hypocritical self-righteousness of her best friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), a girl who is smugly sure she has a direct pipeline to the Lord as she passes judgment on her classmates and, to Mary's horror, organizes a Prayer Circle to help cure Dean.
Mary is kicked out of the Christian Jewels, Hilary Faye's singing group, and becomes close to Cassandra, who manages to say and do the most outrageous things in class without fear of being expelled because everyone is certain she can be "saved." Cassandra is a free spirit who welcomes Mary in her crisis, encourages Mary's romantic leanings toward Pastor Skip's son, Patrick (Patrick Fugit), and unlocks the life force inside Roland, who previously had been treated as a helpless child by his domineering sister, Hilary Faye.
Amurri cuts a dashing figure in this colorless crowd, slashing through the hypocrisy, while Culkin shows he may have a future as an adult actor after all. It's a low-key performance, but one that offers support and a cynical eye when necessary. But it's Malone as the haplessly saintly Mary, searching for answers and help in her crisis, who wins sympathy. Don't expect a virgin birth, but there is something of a miracle in the way her prayers do get answered.
Starring: Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Heather Matarazzo, Eva Amurri, Chad Faust, Elizabeth Thai, Martin Donovan, Mary-Louise Parker.
Rated: PG-13, contains sexual situations, adult themes, profanity.