Saved! Brian Dannelly’s Satire with a Message

Set in a Christian high school, Saved! is a message film in the guise of a social satire. The humor is not strong enough to make the film as wickedly funny as it wants to be. However, considering the large number of high-school comedies around, Saved! is at least two notches above the norm.

As written by novice director Brian Dannelly, the film follows the standard cliques-at-war within a high school, revisiting a territory that has become familiar. Unfortunately, the girls fall too easily into recognizable types, or even stereotypes. Jena Malone plays the good girl, Mary; Mandy Moore is Hilary Faye, the domineering bitch princess. Together, they start their senior year at the top of their school (American Eagle) social food chain–until Mary’s boyfriend informs her that he thinks he might be gay. (Never mind that he chooses to tell her while they are swimming under water).

When Jesus appears to Mary in a vision, she heeds his message “to do everything she can to help him.” In the next scene, much to her horror, Mary realizes she is pregnant by her gay boyfriend. The director makes sure to show us that the boy actually got sexually aroused (from looking at porn magazines) and that Mary just happened to enter his room while he was still hot.

When Mary starts to question her basic beliefs, Hilary and her “devoted” disciples turn against her, and the wars, both religious and social, begin.

The ensuing tale describes the formation of a band of outsiders, which includes the school’s other pariahs: Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Hilary’s cynical wheel-chaired brother; Patrick (Patrick Fugit), the principal’s skater heartthrob son; and an exuberant rebel named Cassandra Edelstein (played by Susan Sarandon’s real-life daughter, Eva Amurri).

In this sweetly subversive (emphasis on sweet) comedy, to make it to graduation, the outcasts have to navigate the treacherous hall of high school. The film’s principal adult roles, a teacher and Mary’s mother, are eccentric in their own way. And as played by the iconic figures of American indies Martin Donovan and Mary-Louise Parker, respectively, both add enormous charm to the movie.

In due process, the teenagers gain deeper self-awareness and learn more about life from their extracurricular activities than from any instructor or textbook. They also find faith in unexpected places and realize what it truly means to be Saved!

The movie is not so much anti-religious or anti-faith as it’s anti-fanaticism. In fact, Saved! conveys more than one message, preaching both tolerance and the more risky and divisive issue of Pro-life. As a satire, however, Saved! only touches the surface of a wonderful idea for a new kind of youth movie: How every element in our culture, even religion, turns into an organized, made-for-profit commodity.

Here, the contemporary Christian youth movement provides the vivid background against which the story is set. The film should have been more biting in its depiction of youth retreats, Christian rock bands (and their rabid fans), all-teen prayer groups, young disciples who are more devout than their adult counterparts.

Saved! would have been more stinging if there were a price to be paid. However, unless you consider humiliation the ultimate punishment, no one pays a price here: The gay guy is totally accepted by the others, and Mary gets to keep her baby.

A Personal Film:

Saved! was co-written while Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban while they were students at the American Film Institute. It’s a personal film for both creators.

As a kid, Dannelly went to Catholic elementary school, Christian high school, and Jewish summer camp. A key line in the script — “They can’t all be wrong and they can’t all be right” — reflects the biggest lesson he had learned from his diverse background. Recalling the strict rules of his school years, Dannelly says: “In my high school, we weren’t allowed to dance. Everybody had to be at least 6 inches away from the opposite sex at all times. We had record burnings, and the entertainment at my senior prom was a puppet show!”

Urban had similar experience with his fundamentalist upbringing, as he recalls: “I grew up in a traditional Baptist home in the South. In my college, in Tallahassee, Florida, I regularly saw people who lived in this metaphysical world with punishments and demons I had hard time understanding. Things are twisted and exploited in the name of religion and God. I wanted to explore that.”

Behind the Scenes:

The script’s take on fundamentalist Christianity caused the loss of several locations. After hearing the story’s comedic aspects, the owner of the home that was to serve as Mary’s house changed his mind. He claimed that, as a Christian, it would be inappropriate. Similarly, a Lutheran church backed out of the deal after perusing the script.