Empty souls

Wheelchair-bound Macaulay Culkin and his fellow actors in Saved! rise above the one-dimensional material to portray spiritually conflicted teens.
Empty souls

By John DeFore

'Saved!' patronizes viewers with a thick salve of cynicism

Mary is a student at an all-Christian high school. She's cute, white, and upper-middle class, just like most of the people around her; she's also part of the school's social elite, a clique called the Christian Jewels. The Jewels' leader, Hilary Faye, is an insufferably righteous priss who is, you might guess, headed for a fall. Hilary Faye (that's what folks call her, natch, because we all know slow-witted Christians love those double names) is played by Mandy Moore, who is a little too good at making you want to wring her neck.

From its establishing scenes (in which Mary narrates an overview of her life) through the script's characterizations of folks like Pastor Skip (a youth minister given to translating his enthusiasm for God into watered down hip-hop colloquialisms), the movie proves cripplingly smug, so willing to go for the easy joke and the superficial observation that one quickly understands there will be no real insight - and thus no real bite - beneath the skin-deep satire. Audience members who might actually have encountered thoughtful, non-hypocritical followers of Jesus Christ - and if you haven't, you really ought to consider getting out more - may well be thrown enough by the story's beginning that its central conflict rings false.

What happens is that Mary gets knocked up, and not by the Lord. When she realizes that her boyfriend is gay, Mary hallucinates a vision in which Jesus instructs her to save him; she eventually gives her virginity to the guy, who isn't converted but does impregnate her. Disillusioned, Mary stands in front of a giant crucifix and curses - in the hopes that God will strike her down and spare her going to prom in her third trimester. It doesn't work, and Mary (hiding her heavy-with-child-ness) falls out with the Jewels and in with the school's few bad kids.


Dir. Brian Dannelly; writ. Dannelly, Michael Urban; feat. Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Eva Amurri, Martin Donovan, Mary-Louise Parker (PG-13)
The school's renegade faction provides much of the film's appeal. Cassandra, a cigarette smoker who is rumored to be a stripper and is a confirmed (gasp!) Jew, is an archetypal bad girl who winds up corrupting Hilary Faye's kid brother, a wheelchair-bound cherub played by Macaulay Culkin; the pair are a cynical spark of life and a welcome respite from the one-dimensional zealots surrounding them. (To be fair, the one-dimensionality is a function of the script, not of the cast - many of whom, like Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit, are sharp enough to rise above the material they're given.)

As with Mary, who moves from stereotype to human being when she gets pregnant, the only characters in Saved! who get any of the filmmakers' sympathy are those who are either rejecting everything they've been taught to believe or never believed anything to begin with. Mary's single mom, for instance, develops a big crush on the married Pastor Skip (whose wife is almost permanently away on a missionary trip); only when they're on the brink of adultery do they talk like intelligent humans, and when Skip has a crisis of conscience, he quickly bounces back to martinet mode.

In the end, Saved! reverts to the hackneyed formula of the '80s teen comedy. Unhappiness is cured by a cute date for the prom, the evil girl gets put on the spot, and the film's already-crystal-clear moral is delivered in a patronizing speech that kills whatever goofy vibe the climax might have otherwise had. There are laughs to be found here, sure, but they don't add up to much; and they definitely don't sell the basically humane themes - that life is full of gray areas, that the world is big enough for all kinds of people - that the filmmakers think they're advancing. •

By John DeFore