"In spite of living in the 'End Times,' my future looked bright," explains Christian teenager Mary (Jena Malone) at the start of the new comedy Saved! Mary says the words without a hint of irony or mockery, setting the tone for a satire in which authentic Christian language and mannerisms are held up as self-evidently hilarious. And more often than not, thanks to some sharp writing and acting, they are. Director Brian Dannely admirably (and occasionally blasphemously) attempts to inject levity into America's currently humorless religious dialogue, while relaying it through the characters and scenarios straight out of the teen comedy mold. Like the Bible itself, his degree of success is open to wide interpretation.
The satire starts when Mary's bright future gets a little Job-y--at least by her own Christian standards. Her figure skater boyfriend Dean comes out to her during a game of "underwater secret sharing," and Mary has a head-injury-derived vision of Jesus instructing her to "cure" Dean by ... you know. Heeding the crafty serpent. Raising the ol' tower of Babel. The ploy doesn't work, but its resultant pregnancy would immediately get Mary shipped to a nearby fundamentalist Preggers Penitentiary. So she must hide her condition from her best friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), her mother (Mary-Louise Parker) and her other prospective boyfriend (Patrick Fugit). Factor in that all of their lives revolve around a fundamentalist high school run by a Pastor who is nailing Mary's mom (and I'm not talking about crucifix-nails), and it becomes clear that the ensuing snafu could take on biblical proportions.
Moore embraces the nasty, shallow role of bad-hearted-good-girl with unholy relish, injecting energy and believability into what could easily be an absurd caricature. Her enemy Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the school's only Jewish student, plays Hilary's good-hearted-bad-girl complement equally well, and the two push and pull Mary in opposite moral directions until the film's apocalyptic climax at a Christian Rock prom. One promises a lifetime of condescension and condemning people to hell; the other a closet full of snappy, shoplifted clothes. You do the math.
Ostensibly, Saved! ends up being about the inability of inflexible fundamentalism to provide healthy answers to even mild moral dilemmas--an admirable goal for a teen comedy. Bad characters get their comeuppances, good ones thrive and those on the fence invariably learn the lessons they need to choose the right path, but never in particularly imaginative or satisfying ways. I found myself wishing for a little more cruel humor, such as the hilarious scene when Cassandra profanely speaks in tongues during a school assembly. But Saved! should provide a multitude of thrills for anyone who is currently, or has ever, felt trapped in a godly educational system, and in that its value is significant.