Holy High School!

Saved!, movie review, new york magazine
Mandy Moore, center, next to Jena Malone in Saved!.Photo: MGM

In the religious teen comedy Saved!, the faces of the born-again students at American Eagle Christian High have the high gloss of those who truly believe they are doing God’s work. It’s the sheen of the righteous. But some students are more righteous than others. Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) is the leader of the Christian Jewels, a senior-class clique that sings inspirational God-pop numbers. If this film were Mean Girls, Hilary Faye would be queen of the Plastics, except that she’s not boy crazy, she’s Jesus crazy. Mary (Jena Malone), the protagonist, is in Hilary Faye’s beatific orbit at first, but she has a rude awakening when her figure-skater boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust), a fellow senior, realizes he’s gay and is shipped off by his parents to a local Christian “treatment” center. But before that happens, Mary sleeps with him, believing God has willed her to rescue Dean from sin. Confident that God will restore her virginity, she instead finds herself pregnant. O ye of too much faith.

First-time director Brian Dannelly and his co-writer, Michael Urban, both come from deeply Christian backgrounds, and adept as they are at skewering religious zealotry, their humor never goes over the edge into cruelty or nihilism. There’s no black in their palette. The school’s honcho, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), may be a caricature—he calls Jesus the “ultimate CEO”—but he’s no hypocrite. He means what he says, and when he succumbs to temptation and gets it on with Mary’s flirty mother, Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker), who just happens to have been voted suburban Maryland’s No. 1 Christian interior decorator, he is mightily displeased with himself. Even Hilary Faye, who uses her faith to manipulate people, is not an ogre; she’s just manically misguided, and her inevitable comeuppance leads her to a wider acceptance of Christian love—i.e., she’s cool with homosexuals and agnostics and unwed mothers.

“Adept as the filmmakers are at skewering zealotry, their humor never goes over the edge into cruelty.”

Still, it’s the barbs, and not the inspirationalism, that work best in this movie. (At times, with its smarty-pants take on senior-class politicking, it resembles Election.) Temperamentally, if not altogether spiritually, Dannelly is on the side of the school’s outcasts: Besides Mary, who feels betrayed by God, there’s Hilary Faye’s brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin), a cynical, wheelchair-bound paraplegic; and Cassandra (Eva Amurri, Susan Sarandon’s daughter), a tough cookie and the school’s sole Jewish student (no other school will put up with her punkish insubordination). In a typical scene, as Pastor Skip exhorts a student assembly to pray silently, she begins speaking in tongues and peeling off her clothes. Roland and Cassandra, with their no-bull approach to life, turn out to be made for each other: She shows him no pity, and he doesn’t hide his hots for her. It helps that these actors are refreshingly free of any urge to milk our sympathy. Amurri has some of the same sashaying sensuality as her mother, and Culkin—mirabile dictu!—gives an emotionally uncompromising performance.

By comparison, Mary is a somewhat bland rebel. There’s an icky quality to her crisis of faith: Through her example, everyone learns more about themselves and becomes more tolerant. Jena Malone has a sweetness that can’t be faked, and that makes Mary’s virtuousness shine, but she falls victim to an iron rule of the high-school-movie genre: Bad girls are more exciting to watch than good girls. Mary believes that everything is part of God’s plan, part of which, surely, is that a dewy redeemer is no match for a foul-mouthed slut.

Saved! may be a comedy about religion, but there isn’t much religious feeling in it. The transports of ecstasy experienced by Pastor Skip and Hilary Faye (I almost wrote “Tammy Faye”) are played for laughs. This is the easy way out. If Dannelly had shown how these two, despite their wrongheadedness and prejudices, were touched to their souls by prayer, the satire would have been much richer and more complicated. And the film suffers from a lack of reference to the actual world of terrorism and aids and drugs and Columbine—all the things kids are scared of now and that might send them (or their parents) into the fundamentalist fold. I realize that Dannelly wants us to see how cloistered these Bible-toting students are, living in their spic-and-span suburbia, but the deeper comedy in all this should be that, no matter how you plan things, reality bites. No doubt the filmmakers are bracing for—even hoping for—a display of ire from religious conservatives. But the truth is, nothing in Saved! stings.

May (Anne Reid) is a sixtyish woman from the lower-middle-class British suburbs whose husband dies at the beginning of The Mother, leaving her in Notting Hill in the grudging care of her children. She’s not ready for old age, but she’s never had much of a life up until now, either: She stayed at home all her married years because, as she says, “we didn’t have that feminism then.” Her daughter, Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), takes her in, but the resentments between them are palpable. Paula says her mother has never “valued” her—this is her justification for carrying on a self-defeating affair with a married man, Darren (Daniel Craig), who is doing some construction work for the family. Unbeknownst to Paula, May also falls for Darren, who comes across as a combination gigolo and helpmate.

Few movies have explored the reality of senior sexuality, especially women’s, so it’s doubly fine that director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (who last collaborated on the BBC mini-series The Buddha of Suburbia) do so with such smirkless compassion. When she’s with Darren, May shows off not so much the young woman she once was but, rather, the woman she wanted to be. The sex scenes between them are mini-dramas: She is awakened by her own avidity while he is almost bemused by what he has unleashed. Reid’s performance is a bit colorless—this role requires an actress whose face continually reveals new sides, and outside the bedroom Reid’s too often rests in blank repose. But there is in The Mother a rich understanding of where old age takes you. Along with the myth that seniors don’t have sex drives, the film dispels a larger one: that the years bring wisdom.

Holy High School!