In "Saved!," a soft-bellied, sweet-tempered satire about Christian fundamentalism, Jesus isn't just the son of God, he's a best friend, a constant companion and a totally awesome dude. For the born-again kids at the American Eagle Christian High School, Jesus does more than walk among them -- he animates their every move, guides their every thought. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that "religion is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they shall think." To which these happily obedient kids would surely say, "Amen!"
Narrated by Mary (Jena Malone), an earnest high school innocent with something to lose, "Saved!" takes as an article of faith that there's something inherently comic about Christian fundamentalism. "I've been born again my whole life," Mary exclaims, right off the bat and by way of a character introduction. Raised by her widowed mother, Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker), the teen belongs to a youth group called the Christian Jewels, a sort of "girl gang for Jesus." Along with her friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) and other like-minded youths, she expresses her faith by spreading the word, hectoring visitors to women's health clinics and keeping her chastity wrapped in prophylactic dogma. She doesn't practice safe sex; she practices safe thinking. Alas for Mary, even the most reliable protection sometimes fails, and therein lies a cautionary tale.
With bright bounce, first-time director Brian Dannelly, who wrote the screenplay with Michael Urban, tracks what happens to belief when it runs smack into other, equally powerful forces, notably raging teenage hormones. The story moves into gear after Mary's boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), a smiley ice skater partial to spandex and glitter, announces that he might be gay. Eventually he's sent away to a Christian rehab center for "de-gayification" (a grim plot point the film slides over far too hastily), but only after Mary attempts her own less-than-divine intervention. Because good intentions can be as ineffectual as the rhythm method, this misbegotten missionary work backfires spectacularly, wreaking havoc on Mary's relationships with her family, her friends and, in time, her faith.
Crammed with shiny, happy people living shiny, happy people lives, "Saved!" starts off fast, funny and glib. Dannelly has a nice sense of detail (Hilary Faye's license plate reads "JC GRL") and keeps his characters cleverly in play against one another. The young actors in particular do a bang-up job, with Patrick Fugit, Macaulay Culkin and Eva Amurri (who's a ringer for her mother, Susan Sarandon) providing excellent support to Malone and Moore's opposition forces. In these young faces you see the joy of belief, but you also see the fissures that emerge when belief falters. As the story progresses, however, as the melodrama escalates and those fissures open into fault lines, the comedy buckles, then drops away. There is, it seems, something too fragile about teenage pain to make sport of it for long.
Across the globe, fundamentalists of different faiths are duking it out, and, while the times seem ripe for religious satire, the ferocity of debate surrounding a movie like "The Passion of the Christ" suggests otherwise. Poking fun at religion for either kicks or conviction has never been easy; just ask Catholic Kevin Smith, who was greeted with death threats when he took on the church in his 1999 film "Dogma." It's no great surprise that after a tough beginning, "Saved!" soon starts to sound a lot like the inspirational TV movie (with Valerie Bertinelli!) that Mary and her mother watch one night. It is, after all, easier to embrace "free-to-be-you-and-me" pieties than to take on organized religion, easier to claim that God loves everyone than to publicly admit that some of his most ardent believers will always be invested in hate.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for strong thematic issues involving teens, sexual content, pregnancy, smoking and language
Times guidelines: Nothing graphic; the sex is suggestive, the language fairly mild.
Mandy Moore...Hilary Faye
United Artists presents a Single Cell Pictures and Infinity Media production, released by United Artists. Director Brian Dannelly. Writers Dannelly, Michael Urban. Producers Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Michael Ohoven, William Vince. Director of photography Bobby Bukowski. Editor Pamela Martin. Costume designer Wendy Chuck. Music Christophe Beck. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
In selected theaters.