“I have been doing the Christian thing all my life…and where is my reward?”
A character asks that question toward the end of Saved! By the time it is asked, it is not an entirely unreasonable question. These characters have devoted themselves so whole-heartedly to their religion that there is no room for anything else. They believe themselves to be above human emotions and thus their descent into what we consider normal is seen as absolutely horrifying. The reason the film works is that this descent is taken in the way that society would view it. This is not horrifying; it is inevitable and is frankly deserved given the sheer amount of bigotry the “Christians” in the film demonstrate.
Jena Malone stars as Mary, a woman who has been “born again her entire life.” She seems to live a good life with a devoted boyfriend and many friends around her, including the incredibly popular Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). All are fundamentalist Christians and all attend an exclusive Christian school where Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan) teaches them about how to devote their lives to Christ. One day, Mary’s boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) reveals he may be gay. Mary is so shocked she passes out in the pool and sees a vision of Jesus telling her to help Dean. Her method is to have sex with him. In the process she is impregnated and he is shipped of to a Mercy Home. With no one else to turn to, she seeks advice from Cassandra (Eva Amurri) who has made it her mission to destroy the Christian ideals in the school. Through Cassandra, Mary gains a new view of life and sees the school for what it really is.
First and foremost, this film is a comedy. Is it funny? Absolutely. Most of the comedy revolves around the character of Cassandra. Cassandra is the funniest character in the film and acts as the anarchistic Groucho Marx to everyone’s Zeppo. She is such a bizarre character that she has to be seen to be believed. There is no taboo she is willing to break, no societal norm she is willing to destroy. When she is forced to decorate for the prom, she makes a point of not wearing underwear. She proclaims that she is “counting on” second hand smoke killing everyone. Considering her location, her actions are that much more jarring. Every school has a rebellious figure. Very few are willing to go as far as she is.
Other sections of the film are just as hilarious. Hilary Faye’s reaction to everything around her is just as funny. By the end, she is on the same level as Cassandra and is far more destroyed by it. In addition, Roland (Macaulay Culkin) was the culmination of Hilary’s bigotry. She is doing the “Christian thing” by helping her paraplegic brother move around, but hates every moment of it. His seeking advice from Cassandra is more than Hilary can bear. This is a film more about Hilary’s downfall than about Mary’s pregnancy. In fact, one has to wonder why the film was not about the battle between the two. That could have lead to a much more poignant look at the two extremes in the battle over fundamentalist Christianity.
What about the ultimate message of the film? That the actions of the students are ultimately the exact opposite of what their religion demands? It works but it’s not nearly as biting as it could have been. Jesus Camp, which is one of the greatest documentaries ever produced, demonstrates the exact same themes and principles with a much younger crowd. That may have hurt Saved!. The characters are of an age where they can make some of their own decisions. Much of Cassandra’s actions may be simply good old fashioned teenage rebellion rather than anything meaningful. The young kids in Jesus Camp were ultimately being brainwashed. The kids in Saved! ultimately could rebel if they wanted: Cassandra and Mary show that. They just didn’t choose to.
Yes, this was a comedy and was far more lighthearted than a documentary is ever supposed to be. But there were scenes in Jesus Camp that were funny enough on their own. The director clearly wanted to go for the jugular yet ultimately didn’t. We laugh at the weirdness of the characters but leave without the desire for the system they live in to be changed. So, why didn’t he? I honestly have no idea. Maybe he felt that he was constrained in the parameters of comedy.
That is a shame really. The greatest satires can do both. I guess this means that, as funny as Saved! is, it is not among the greatest satires. Still, I do give a recommendation. Maybe people will be inspired by the film, even if it is to seek out other films that do what it does better.