Saved! (2004)

Saved! is a comedy I didn’t find funny but I ended up loving anyway. The film’s attempts at exaggeration end up landing it closer to the truth. What might appear to many as caricatures remind me of people I grew up with, people I still know. If I’m completely honest, sometimes they remind me of myself. For Saved! is about the nasty side of Christianity and the propensity of every human being to be judgmental and, well, human.

Mary (Jena Malone) attends a private Christian high school filled with devout and fanatical believers. But Mary’s world gets turned upside down when she finds out her boyfriends is gay. In attempt to “cure” him, she has sex, only to find out later she’s pregnant. Trying to hide her indiscretion and struggling with her belief in God, she quickly becomes one of the outcasts of the school, falling out of favor with her once best friend and the school’s most proactive student, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore).

More than anything else, Saved! is about how when in the hands of the wrong people, Christianity can be a harmful thing. Mary uses it to justify losing her virginity with her boyfriend for all the wrong reasons while Hilary uses it to judge everyone around her even though she herself cannot live up to the standards she imposes. It perpetuates hypocrisy and arrogance, justifies irrational behavior and practice.

This twist might make the jokes funny to some, but the real joke is that this is a huge part of modern day Christianity. It’s people who believe in some secret divine will that God will impart to them which leads to all sorts of destructive behavior. It’s the people who make up the Westboro Baptist Church that declare that “god hates fags.” It’s the people who listen to bad Christian rock and seclude themselves in a harmful Christian culture of mediocre art and even more mediocre theology.

Therefore, Mary has to turn for others for understanding. The punk Jew Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and cripple Roland (Macaualay Culkin) become an unlikely support group for Mary. Here, she’s given love and understanding in her weakness instead of judgment and condemnation. Perhaps I’m going out on a limb here, but that sounds a lot like the ministry of this guy named Jesus Christ.

The true strength of Saved! is how complex and vulnerable these characters can be. It’s a reminder of how quick people are to judge someone they don’t know, how easy it is to compartmentalize people when there is much more going on beneath the surface. If all Christians can show to these people is condescension and judgment, they’ll never see the people underneath.

It’s a disappointment that with such a strong cast of characters, the ending is wishy-washy. It’s the safe way out, not trying to come to a conclusion that weighs for or against Christanity, but there’s a very clear thread of what this film could close with, a powerful idea I think both Christians and non-Christians would adhere to as a worthy pursuit: the idea that love will get us far closer to other people than hate will. But instead it goes for something lazy, safe and generic.

Saved! is very rough around the edges, but that doesn’t stop it from being as strong or as poignant as it is. Not everything it says is legitimate, not every portrayal it makes is fair, but there’s something to be gleaned for both religious and non-religious people: going through this world judging people will make you bitter, it’s only through love that you’ll ever be able to reach out to anyone.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing