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June 8, 2004

Saved! asks WWJD: What Would Jena Do?

I'm so glad Saved! came out the same year as The Passion of the Christ.

I'm not one of those people who vehemently hated The Passion. Oddly enough, I had the same reaction to it that I had to Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Both films are mostly a waste of time, but there are a few touching scenes in each of them to save them from being completely irredeemable.

Saved! is a movie I enjoyed much more thoroughly. The story is hilarious, the jokes are mostly spot-on, and the cast is top-notch—yes, even Macaulay Culkin. Mandy Moore shows that she has a much more promising future in movies than she does in music, and Eva Amurri proves that she ought to be famous for another reason than just being Susan Sarandon's daughter.

Jena Malone plays the aptly-named Mary, a girl excited about her impending graduation from American Christian High School. When her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust) confesses his doubts about his sexuality, she decides the Christian thing to do is to lead him away from the land of man milk 'n' honey by sleeping with him. Unfortunately, Jesus does not appreciate her sacrifice, and she winds up pregnant. Oh, and Dean's parents find a Honcho magazine under his mattress and send him to a conversion center, effectively making her a single parent.

Obviously, this material could go in several different directions. For the most part, Saved! treads lightly. It's less a scathing exposé on the hypocrisy of religion than it is a gentle criticism. Only a few of the jokes seem like they could offend someone: one about loincloth-clad Jesus being "hung" on the cross, and another when Mary wishes she has cancer instead of being "with child."

Maybe it's for the best that Saved! isn't too barbed, because one of the best things it has going for it is the deep affection for its characters. Even Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), the most die-hard fanatic among them, isn't entirely without merit. Mandy Moore interprets her as misled rather than malevolent. Hilary really is trying to do the right thing—even if she's cluelessly patronizing and obnoxious in the process.

One of Hilary's favorite causes is Roland (Macaulay Culkin), a wheelchair-bound boy with a crush on the only Jewish girl in the school. An early exchange between them, playing hooky from a class assembly, is priceless. Roland reveals that Hilary was the one who found him after his life-threatening accident. "She calls it the miracle that saved my life," he says dryly.

"The miracle you could have used is not falling out of the tree," his crush, Cassandra (Eva Amurri), replies.

Saved! is full of moments like that. Characters doubt their faith, but never entirely renounce it. On one hand, this saves Saved! from being too scornful, but on the other hand, it leads the movie into dangerous territory. The ending, meant to be uplifting, almost becomes treacly. It seems like Mary would suffer a lot more consequences because of her single-parenthood. Instead, her baby seems like a hip, new born-again accessory.

Of course, Saved! is inundated with its fair share of clichés. The villain—as much as this movie even has a villain—receives her comeuppance through a completely random coincidence. There's a Pretty Woman montage of trying on clothes at a department store. The climactic scene takes place at the prom. Saved! is so good-natured, though, that it's hard to hold these weaknesses against it. As a matter of fact, the abundance of stereotypes almost seems to be the point. Christianity, the movie suggests, has been so mainstreamed into popular culture that, even at a Christian high school, the students divide into the same cliques that one may have seen in Mean Girls.

In no small way, the heart of the movie is Mary's love interest, Patrick (Patrick Fugit, who was so good as William Miller in Almost Famous). Confident but not showy in his faith, he leads the other characters to a deeper understanding of their own convictions. Mary needs to learn to be less naïve; Roland and Cassandra, less bitter; Hilary Faye and Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), less judgmental.

If this makes Saved! sound like an after-school special, well, that's part of its charm and its comfort. At one point in the film, Mary and her mother (Mary-Louise Parker) watch a Valerie Bertinelli movie on Lifetime—and indeed, it's easy to see Saved! eventually winding up on the oft-maligned Channel for Women. It's not exactly the most challenging material. Still, it's a hell of a lot of fun, and I dare say it'll make you question your faith more than the gore-fest that was The Passion of the Christ. I'll take the Gospel According to Jena Malone over the Gospel According to Gibson any day.