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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Saved! courted controversy to explore Christianity in high school

Illustration for article titled Saved! courted controversy to explore Christianity in high school
Screenshot: Saved!

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week, ahead of Easter, we’re looking at films about Christianity.


Saved! (2004)

Adolescence is a confusing time when many young people are searching for answers. One helpful thing about religion is that it makes all those new, overwhelming choices crystal clear: Don’t drink, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex, and you will be rewarded for all eternity. But what happens when teenage hormones and stringent moralistic values collide? It’s not a quandary often explored in teen movies, but writer-director Brian Dannelly made a valid attempt to untangle the piety puzzle in his indie comedy Saved!

Dannelly based the film on his experiences growing up gay in a Baptist high school in Maryland (where the film is set, though it was filmed in Canada). The pointedly named Mary (Jena Malone, in her first lead role) has sex with her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), in a futile attempt to convince him that he’s not gay, even though she’s a devout Christian. It’s fairly close to an immaculate conception, so naturally Mary winds up pregnant despite all of her born-again prayers and pleas to Jesus. (“Please let it be cancer!”)

From there, an angry Mary feels rejected by the belief system she was raised on, causing her to break from her Bible-thumping best friend, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore, in a role that helped her expand from bland adolescent romances like A Walk To Remember). Mary hides her pregnancy as she makes new friends with American Eagle Christian High School’s sole Jewish student, Cassandra (Eva Amurri), Hilary Faye’s paraplegic brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin, in only his second film since 1994’s Richie Rich), and appealing newcomer Patrick (Almost Famous Patrick Fugit), who happens to be the son of the school’s Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan).

Saved! was greeted with some controversy when it was released, as it offered a humorous, non-complimentary look at born-again Christians. But the film actually offers a thoughtful view of teenage belief systems, just liberally dosed with witty wisecracks. Moore’s over-the-top portrayal of Hilary Faye is played for laughs, but she perfectly personifies the holier-than-thou Christian who believes they are living the exemplary life while their everyday actions couldn’t be further from the values of the truly devout. Moore gleefully veers into camp as Hilary Faye hurls a Bible at Mary’s back, insisting, “I am filled with Christ’s love!” Unlike Hilary Faye, Pastor Skip appears to have good intentions at least, as he tries to reach the kids from his populist pulpit. But it soon becomes clear that the parameters of the church’s beliefs are far too narrow for the teens’ desires. As Mary rightly points out, “Why would God make us all so different, if He wanted us to be the same?”

Saved! features a disturbing incident of fat-shaming that hasn’t aged well, but the introspective religious explorations hold up. High school is the perfect time for value systems to shift and for young people to reexamine what’s really important, as Mary crafts her own makeshift family, realizing that what at first appears to be a curse may in fact wind up being a miracle. An added bonus: Nowhere else will you hear Mandy Moore and (film producer) Michael Stipe dueting on The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as the credits roll.

Availability: Saved! is currently streaming on Pluto TV and Tubi with ads. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango NOW, and VUDU.