Thursday, March 22, 2012

Saved! Is Another Perfect Comedy With Real Social Commentary!

The Good: Wonderful social commentary, Surprisingly good acting, Decent character development, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Somewhat predictable.
The Basics: On DVD, Saved! is a funny, blasphemous film with decent bonus features and a lot of humor.

My partner and I have had a great number of conversations about religion because we both had times in our lives where we had faith and we both had events which caused us to lose our faith in organized religions. While we've conversed about our thoughts about various Christian - or, as I am quick to point out, Paulist - hypocrisies in the establishments and hierarchies of the churches and religious movements, we have seldom explored the limited art that is daring enough to criticize them. To date, the only movie we have seen together that deals with religious hypocrisy is Dogma (reviewed here!). So when she asked me to take a break from my Best Picture Project to watch Saved! with her, I was eager and a little surprised that she had beaten me to seeing the film.

As is appropriate, my partner called it absolutely right for me: I loved Saved! and it is one of the first new films in a long time I am pleased to enthusiastically recommend and spread the good news of. Ironically, my partner's history with the film paralleled the film. While my problems with the resurgence of the Religious Right has largely been political, my partner's issues are largely personal. When Saved! first hit DVD, she fell in love with it and used it to try to wake her mother up to the contradictions within the Church. Her mother, blinded by ignorance, failed to believe in the film's reality. The truth is, the strength of Saved! is that it finally exposes the social problems with the Paulist movements and the ignorance of those embedded within it. The movie calls out the hypocrisies in youth movements that preach abstinence, homophobia and religious intolerance. More than that, Saved! makes the social commentary with interesting characters and startlingly good acting for an obscure film.

Mary is a Christian teenager who is a about to enter her Senior year at the prestigious American Eagle private school. She is dating a boy named Dean who comes out to her over the summer. Mary devotes herself to trying to un-gay Dean and she has a vision of Jesus Christ, who tells her to help him. Mary takes this as a sign to have premarital sex with Dean and on the first day of her Senior year, Dean is sent away to Mercy House to undergo re-education to make him a heterosexual. Mary and her friend, Hillary Faye, begin the year trying to spread the word of Christ, especially to the delinquent Jewish student, Cassandra. Hillary Faye's handicapped brother, Roland, becomes intrigued by Cassandra's freespirited ways and becomes her friend.

But when Pastor Skip's son, Patrick, comes to American Eagle, Mary is instantly smitten and shocked when Patrick appears to prefer her to Hillary Faye. Mary puts him off when she realizes that she is pregnant with Dean's child and this causes her to question everything she has known. Cassandra and Roland see Mary leaving a Planned Parenthood clinic and show her friendship and support. This infuriates Hillary Faye further and Cassandra works to make sure Patrick stays interested in Mary and thwart Hillary Faye's stranglehold on American Eagle.

Mixed in with the story of youthful discovery of the hypocrisy upon which they have built their lives is a subplot where Mary's mother is clearly involved with Pastor Skip, whose marriage is anything but happy. Pastor Skip, standing for the Christian sense of morality, is unwilling to divorce his wife, but cannot (obviously) make his relationship with Mary's mother public. This leads to one of only two problems I could find in the entire film. Near the climax of the film, Mary's relationship with Skip is made explicit and because the scene occurs in public, the viewer has to wonder if Skip has become a complete moron or if the writers just got completely careless.

While Saved! has a few moments of predictability, at least for those who can see which way the wind is blowing with the satire, the only other real problem with the movie is with the casting. Martin Donovan is wonderful as Pastor Skip and he is well-cast. Dean is played by the equally-good Chad Faust. While Patrick is Pastor Skip's son and Dean has no relation, Faust and Donovan have a remarkably similar facial structure. The eyes and jawline of the two actors is unsettlingly similar for two characters who have no relation.

That said, Saved! is funny, heartwarming and enlightening. Saved! exposes the Paulist community for exactly what it is; as human as any other group of people. As a result, the characters are motivated by fundamental human desires and faults. Mary tries to do what she believes is right based upon her faith and her vision, even though it is irrational and objectively foolish. Similarly, Hillary Faye is jealous and conceited, just like many girls her age. What many might not realize before watching Saved! is that the Christian community has cliques just like every other group of people, especially young people.

Saved! is also blessed (I couldn't resist) with amazing acting. For a film using no a-listers, the movie is dead-on with the acting. Arguably the most recognizable name comes from singer Mandy Moore, who plays Hillary Faye. Moore brings the same upbeat eagerness to Saved! that she brought to American Dreamz (reviewed here!), but she manages to have a much darker undertone to her character here which she pulls off plausibly with a very tight body language. As well, Mackauly Caulkin, who plays Roland is decent. He plays Roland with a jaded sense and while my partner rightly observed that he ought to have bulked up to play the role of a young man who has been wheelchair bound for years, he makes one believe that he actually is wheelchair-bound, especially in the lone scene where he pulls himself up off the ground.

But almost the entire film hinges on Jena Malone, who plays Mary. Mary has a character arc that takes her from blind faith to agnostic and Malone makes the transformation entirely realistic by gradually introducing elements into Mary's character that make the changes a natural progression. From playing opposite a fifty-foot tall cutout Jesus (one of the powerful acting moments where Malone swears bitterly at the sign) to playing with Mary-Lousie Parker (Mary's mother) to Faust, Malone holds her own and has a surprising screen presence. I write "surprising," because Mary is supposed to be the sidekick and is intended to be awkward when she has the spotlight cast upon her, in complete contrast to Moore's Hillary Faye. Yet, Malone makes the simplicity of Mary work and be more exciting than the flash of the film's resident blonde. Malone's unassuming quality, in fact, makes her more watchable and intriguing than anyone else. While Malone may seem blandly wholesome initially, Mary's story takes off and Malone makes the character's transformations work.

On DVD, Saved! features two different commentary tracks which are entertaining and insightful on the making and reception of the film. There are bloopers which are moderately funny and deleted scenes which flesh the movie out even better. In addition to the theatrical trailer, there is also a featurette on the making of Saved! but some of that is repetitive from the commentary tracks. All in all, though, Saved! makes decent use of the medium.

And for those with a stomach for social satire, Saved! is funny and clever, with a dry wit and an open humor alternately. The film promises viewers it will expose what virtually every other group has had exposed: that at the end of the day, we are all people and as much as groups try to separate themselves, they are largely motivated by the same basic emotions. This is a clever and enjoyable way to remind some dogmatic individuals about that.

For other works featuring Jena Malone, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Sucker Punch
The Soloist
Pride & Prejudice
Donnie Darko


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an orderly listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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