Religion is funny. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the rituals in foreign tongues, maybe it’s the ridiculous outfits, maybe it’s the fact that all the followers are devoting their lives to utter nonsense, blindly believing that there is a God and he has a great plan for us all. What fools. Of course I’m joking, I’m hardly in a position to decide whether or not there is a supreme being, or whether or not any or all the world’s religions are a foolish waste of time. However, if that offended you, maybe Saved! Isn’t the film you should be spending a quiet Sunday night in with.
Mary (Jena Malone) is a confused girl, despite living a good life and being true to the word of God, her boyfriend has been struck by a terrible affliction, yes, Dean (Chad Faust) is gay. Driven by what she believes to be a message from Jesus himself, she decides the only way to cure him is to let him know how wonderful women can be, pre-marital sex can’t be a sin if you’re trying to help someone, right? Unfortunately for Mary not only does it not prove to Dean that girls are perfect for him, but it also leaves her in rather a nasty predicament, That’s right, Mary has fallen victim to a rather less than immaculate conception. Now Mary’s whole way of life is in jeopardy, obviously an abortion is out of the question, but she’s unwed, and rather likely to stay that way, plus how can she keep her position in the Christian Jewels – her school’s band – in her condition, she’s hardly setting an example anymore. It looks rather like Mary is about to have a crisis of faith.
Saved! is a risky film, any movie that tackles religion is going to be controversial, film-makers have had to face picket lines at their movies for decades, regardless of whether a single person objecting to their film has even seen it, let alone got a clue about its message. Not to mention Saved! takes the riskiest possible route, making Christianity a source of parody, for some reason Christians have a hard time having their wrongdoing’s pointed out to them, especially when people are laughing too. Actually that’s rather unfair, it’s fundamentalist Christians that seem to be unable to hear a bad word said against them, unfortunately for them they are exactly the kind of Christians Saved! is set against. It certainly isn’t an anti-Christian film, quite the opposite, its message – which is anything but ambiguous by the time the credits roll – is very pro-Christian, what it does do, rather mercilessly, is satire the kind of fundamentalist Christian attitudes that create a lack of the tolerance and forgiveness that should be so central to their lives.
It does take a few swipes at the growing wave of trendy Christians, the school’s Pastor – Skip – is desperate to connect with his kids, somersaulting onto stage and ‘bigging up’ Jesus, his son Patrick (Patrick Fugit) is on the Christian skateboard team – hitting the board for the lord – but these are never meant to be anything but good people. Even the film’s ‘bad guy’ Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) despite numerous acts that are decidedly un-Christian, getting more so as the film goes on, is always trying to do what she thinks is the right thing. Hilary Faye is just lost in the words and missing the message, taking everything too far in her ambitions to do things right. Sometimes these are very funny – describing her brother Roland who is wheelchair bound, as having ‘differently abledness’ for example – but even she knows when she’s gone too far. She sees Mary getting increasingly ‘lost’ even before anyone discovers the pregnancy, and the further she strays from the Christian Jewels, the more Hilary Faye wants to save her. But when it becomes apparent that she won’t be able to – or maybe it’s because Patrick seems to be rather more interested in Mary than her – she goes to some lengths to see Mary cast out of the flock. She’s doing bad things, but for the right reason, so that makes it okay, right? She just seems unable to see the parallels between her and Mary. And parallels are what Saved! is all about, finding ways to see how the people we think are different are really rather similar to ourselves. What could be more Christian than that?
The acting is frequently excellent, and contains a few surprises. First of all, I didn’t think I would ever enjoy a Mandy Moore film, but this is pretty far removed from the pap she’s been cast in, squarely aimed at 12 year old girls, though ironically the issues Saved! deals with are far more likely to be relevant to 12 year olds these days. Her performance really is very good, not Oscar material by a long stretch, but it does look like Ms. Moore might have a future in acting, rather than whatever you’d call what she was doing in A Walk to Remember. Macaulay Culkin also gets a chance to stretch his legs, at least from an acting point of view, as Hilary Faye’s brother Roland. It’s odd to think someone who became famous so long ago is still able to make high school movies, though he has said this would be his only one, and he was very committed to putting in a great performance. Roland is very much the voice of the audience, Roland isn’t a Christian, Roland thinks Hilary Faye is intolerable, but what with her disability van being his only form of transport he’s rather stuck with her. But his dry wit and sly distaste for the Christian lifestyle that is forced on him everyday provides a lot of the film’s laughs and he’s the easiest character for the audience to connect with. That’s not to say that Mary isn’t a sympathetic character, but her pregnancy and subsequent crisis of faith isn’t a situation most of us will have found ourselves in, but I’m sure most of us have been the one joking about Christians. Jena Malone’s performance is of course noteworthy, but then that’s something that’s becoming rather expected of her. Excellent performances in Donnie Darko, Life as a House, and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (alongside Macaulay’s brother Kieran) all point to her having a long career as an actress.
Despite all that though, Saved! never quite achieves greatness. It has a lot of promise, and some of its ideas are executed superbly, but there aren’t quite enough jokes or enough originality to sustain the premise for the full running time. The ending seems hurried and is rather clichéd, after the subtlety and dry wit that preceded it, it comes across as rather ham-fisted. Almost as if the filmmakers were a bit worried there were people in the audience that hadn’t quite got the message yet, and felt the need to make sure it was very, very clear - odd for a film that is courageous in so many ways. Saved! is probably the most derisive pro-Christian film I can remember seeing, and that’s a boldness that should be applauded, it’s just a shame it could have done with a bit more work on the script.
Saved! wasn’t blessed with a huge budget, and somewhere that is evident is in the picture. It’s less than unusual, the cheaper film stock has a higher level of grain, and Saved! is certainly a victim of that. Sometimes the levels of grain are pretty high, leading to a few mpeg artefacts as the transfer struggles, they are slight but still noticeable, especially on larger screens. Other than that the anamorphic image is fine, with good colour representation and decent black levels.
The soundtrack is actually quite refreshing, and although far from being a home cinema test it is a breezy track with good use of music that helps draw you into the film.
Quite a number of deleted and extended scenes grace the disc, but sadly they seem to be things that did nothing but slow the film down. It is good to have their inclusion as some of them are referenced in the commentaries – it’s always infuriating to hear about scenes and never get to see them, even if they aren’t the best. The best ones are the alternate opening and an extended version of Cassandra(Eva Amurri)'s drunken episode, which of course Hilary Faye took as another cry for help, the poor Jewish girl needing to be saved.
It seems people didn’t make very many mistakes making Saved! as rather than the standard blooper reel there are just four scenes, presented separately. They are, however, pretty funny, which is a step up from most complete reels I’ve seen, the best being Jena Malone’s ad-libbing of what she did with her summer vacation, including the accidentally hilarious “doing volunteer work for Mr. Bush.”
Commentary from Director & Co-Writer Brian Dannelly, Producer Sandy Stern and Co-Writer Michael Urban
Brian Dannelly finds a lot to talk about in this track, he and Sandy Stern have barely a silent moment for the whole film. As a first feature as well as a movie made on a very tight budget there is a lot to talk about, right from the off it was a difficult film to get made, and there was a problem with funding leading to the shooting being delayed for a very long time. Dannelly seems extremely grateful that so many of the cast were committed enough to the film to stick with it. They talk in depth about their problems with the MPAA – the filmmakers were determined to make the movie a PG-13 so kids could get to see a film that was relevant to them – and with the content of this movie, that was quite a challenge. All in all it’s a very informative track, with a lot of energy, and a must for those that enjoy the film.
Commentary from Jena Malone and Mandy Moore
The two female leads have also sat down for a commentary, and they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. There’s a lot more talk of hair, makeup and accessories than you’ll find in the other commentary, it certainly has a girly-get-together feeling to it, that doesn’t stop them from talking about some great on set stories – for instance Chad’s father is played by Dead Like Me’s Greg Kean, who also played Beach Boy Brian Wilson in a VH-1 special. Macaulay Culkin seemed convinced he was the real Brian Wilson, and Kean didn’t help matters by confirming the rumour when someone plucked up the courage to ask him. It’s a more light-hearted track than the first, and I preferred the more informative one, but this is still a fun listen.
Heaven Help Us: Behind the Scenes
More of a trailer than a look behind the scenes, this featurette isn’t much longer than a standard trailer anyway. Every gets their 15 seconds, even producer Michael Stipe (of REM) – who also teamed up with Mandy Moore for a cover of God Only Knows on the soundtrack. It’s no surprise that there is nothing of substance here.
A selection of very brief snippets that answer a few questions about the film, mostly just lines cut from scenes – which played better without them – and probably not anything you were desperate to know.
Rather a standard trailer, though it does play down the religious satire in the movie, making it look more like a standard teen comedy set in a Christian school. The disc also carries trailers for Bubba Ho-Tep, Touching the Void, Intermission, Barbershop 2, Walking Tall, Soul Plane and Dorm Daze.
Saved! is a good film, but sadly not a great one. It’s still well worth watching, and a very enjoyable hour and a half, but the lack of polish to the script ultimately lets it down. MGM have presented it on a decent DVD, whilst most of the features are a little light and inconsequential, the commentary tracks are both worth your time, making the disc a tempting purchase.