Saved! (2004) — A painfully funny look at fundamentalists

“Let’s get our Christ on, let’s kick it Jesus-style!”

Drew’s rating: Faith is a funny thing.

Drew’s review: There’s an old saying I’m particularly fond of, that the unexamined life is not worth living. Not to get too philosophical (me talk smart?), but I do think there’s a lot of truth to that — how can you truly appreciate and be secure in your life if you never take a step back to look at yourself from an outside perspective?

And that goes double for religion: I think most of us would agree that taken in their appropriate, intended manners, most religions can be forces for incredible good… but anyone with even minimal knowledge of history will also tell you how horrible and intolerant some people can be when confronted by those of a different belief system. Hence, the need for introspection. Examining some of the firmly-held notions you’d always taken for granted is not a sin; on the contrary, it constitutes the difference between intelligent faith and blind, stupid obedience, allowing you not only to refine your own thoughts and opinions, but also making you more respectful of those of others.

Simply put, you’re less likely to look down your nose at alternate viewpoints if you’re frequently reexamining your own.

“Fine,” you say, rolling your eyes, “but I think I was here to read about a movie, professor?” Hey, I’m getting to it. Filmed in 2004, Saved! garnered the same sort of pre-release negative publicity that afflicted Dogma, though (thanks to being an independent film) on a slightly smaller scale. As with any movie that either pokes fun at or directly challenges certain fundamentalist viewpoints, it took its punches — and, also like Dogma, probably emerged the better for it, gaining nationwide attention (and a fiercely devoted fanbase) for a movie that might have otherwise been quietly screened to a few small audiences and then forgotten. Ah, but what exactly was all the fuss about?

Mary (Jena Malone) is that oh-so-rare teenager who’s got it all together. She’s well adjusted at her Christian high school and a member in good standing of popular girl clique/C-rock band the Christian Jewels, led by her friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Meanwhile, she’s secure in her faith, gets along with her mother, and has a sensitive, clean-cut boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) who never tries to take advantage of her or do things she’s uncomfortable with.

In other words, in movieland, Mary’s headed for a fall of (forgive me) biblical proportions.

When Dean confesses to Mary that he’s gay, her world is thrown into turmoil… that is, until a vision of Jesus (maybe) appears, telling her to sleep with Dean in order to save him. But though she complies, it’s to no avail — Dean’s parents learn his secret and ship him off to be de-gayed, while Mary is horrified to discover she’s pregnant. Finding unexpected solace in the only two non-judgmental people she knows, school Jew/rebel Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and Hilary Faye’s paraplegic brother Roland (Macauley Culkin), Mary has to contend with a school year of keeping her secret hidden and — just maybe — learning to be more open-minded about both her own beliefs and those of others.

Not surprisingly, the makers of Saved! chose to play up the comedic element as much as possible (rule #1: when poking fun at the overwhelming majority religion of your target audience, the jokes had better be pretty darn hilarious), and I’m happy to report that they succeeded. Some parts are maybe a bit uneven, but it’s easily the funniest movie I’ve seen in months.

Also, it may go without saying on a cult movie website, but don’t let the lack of many recognizable stars keep you away… it’s an independent movie, so naturally there aren’t any huge names, but that doesn’t keep the actors from turning in strong performances. Macauley Culkin is and always will be the Home Alone kid, of course, and it’s hard to picture him otherwise, but I’ll give him his props:Hhe made me buy him in a role that’s not just extremely against type, but also one he’s waaaay too old for. (Dude’s like the same age I am.) Meanwhile, Mandy Moore plays that “bitch-with-good-intentions” part really well, and extra props to the writers for making her character multidimensional — it’d be easy to fall into the trap of having her be just some snotty brat who wants to use Christianity to advance her own social standing, but that’s not what we see. Instead the character is, yes, clueless and remarkably self-absorbed, but with (at least at first) ultimately good intentions, even if her methods of achieving them are… well, incredibly pushy and obnoxious.

Okay, so the movie’s funny and well acted, but is it disrespectful to religion in general, or Christianity in particular? I can honestly say I don’t think it is — it jokes around a bit with the direction some people take in expressing their faith (you can’t spell fundamentalist without fun!), and there’s one scene where a particularly gaudy graven image sustains some damage, but the movie overall is more concerned with asking us to respect the beliefs of others, rather than bashing Christians in particular. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I have a pretty wide-ranging perspective when it comes to different religions.

Personally I’m half-Catholic, half-Lutheran, raised on the ever popular twice-a-year church attendance policy. (Weekend sports: tools of the devil? Discuss.) I consider myself a practicing Christian, but meanwhile I’m marrying a Jew, who may or may not ever convert. My sister is currently in college, so naturally she’s an agnostic. Oh yes, and my future sister-in-law is Buddhist, just to cover all the bases. (You should hear what people say when we all walk into a bar together.) But hey, that’s the nature of respecting the beliefs of others- if we have kids they’ll be raised Christian but observe Jewish holidays as well, we’re having an interfaith wedding, and just this last weekend I watched Fiddler on the Roof. (Oy!) It’s all good.

In the end, part of whether you enjoy this movie or not may hinge on how accurate a portrait you think it paints of fundamentalist Christians. If you feel that most of the characters are very broad, exaggerated caricatures of the way things really are, you’ll probably feel that the filmmakers drew on unflattering stereotypes and set up a straw man just to knock it down. On the other hand, those who think that some of those caricatures hit a little too close to home, those who have seen or experienced variations of just the kind of narrow-mindedness portrayed in Saved!, are likely to feel that it’s right on the money.

But in my opinion, what it ultimately comes down to is how you interpret the film’s message. If you view it first and foremost as a commentary on how to react to the beliefs and actions of others, I can see how there might be frustration on both sides- from people who think the Christians in the movie cast aside their concepts of sin too easily, and from those who feel that they’re still not accepting enough by the movie’s close. But egotist that I am, I interpreted it as a more personal message about the aforementioned need to get in touch with and question your own beliefs first, with the knowledge that this may or may not change how you then react to those of others. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one, I think.

But then again, to borrow from Dennis Miller, that’s just my opinion; I could be wrong. Whether I am or not, though, doesn’t change the fact that Saved! is a movie worth viewing for yourself at least once. You may love it, you may hate it, you may love parts and hate other parts… the “3” in offensiveness is more an average, reflecting the fact that some folks will be appalled by what the film has to say, while others will simply shrug their shoulders. But one way or the other, hopefully it’ll at least get you thinking. And setting all else aside, that should never be a bad thing.

Justin’s rating: John 15:19

Justin’s review: When I heard about the basic plot for Saved!, a sigh blew past my lips, my shoulders slumped, and I muttered, “Great. Another opportunity for Hollywood to get Christianity all wrong.” How many movies, TV series and whatnot has Hollywood stuffed full of raving Baptist ministers, molesting Catholic priests, and dumbed-down discussions of universal theology without expanding their scope beyond these handful of 2-D characters?

I felt it was only fair to give Saved! a full shot, even if it irritated me with its misconceptions. What I left the movie with was a mixed bag of good questions, bad answers, and some leftover Oreos. While I may differ with the muddled resolution that the filmmakers stutter into, Saved! actually was a charming, sweet movie with bright moments of comedy and interesting perspectives of how outsiders react to unrealistic Christians.

Having gone to a Christian high school myself, the parody of the high school setting in Saved! is screamingly funny. (And also disturbing.) The students all look perfect, dress neatly and verbalize about God like there’s no tomorrow — but you’re quick to see that there’s a large gap between the Christian culture that these people are buying into (the music, the mantra, the right words to say, the clear-cut rules) and the way a true Christian should act and live. I can personally attest to how many people I’ve witnessed that buy into the whole surface veneer that seems to reward how many times you wave your hands and pray very loudly without actually learning what this and grace and how it operates in a dirty, broken world.

Mary (Jena Malone) is one of the Perfect Christians in a Perfect Christian Clique. She says the right things, sings as part of a praise team, and has unquestionably soaked in all of the shallow teachings that her school, her mom and her pastor threw her way. Cracks start to form in her world as her boyfriend turns out to be gay, she becomes pregnant, and she is ostracized. She eventually joins up with the other outcasts, including a wheelchair-bound Macaulay Culkin and a foul-mouthed Jewish girl. They feel that Christianity has rejected them because they didn’t adhere 100% to the rules, and you know what? In this case, they’re right.

I really like how, through a deft comedic touch and striking dramatic moments, the filmmakers move on from out-and-out satire to a more human story of people who are hurting and a faith that (seemingly) isn’t willing to accept or help them with their imperfections. On one hand, I’m laughing vicariously at the antics of a hyper-spiritual Mandy Moore, who throws the Bible at Mary and shouts at her “in Christian love”… because I know plenty of so-called Christians who would not see the hypocrisy in such actions.

But on the other hand, the movie avoids answering the big unsaid question here: So what should real Christians be like, if not this? There’s some vague flag-waving of tolerance, but that’s nothing more or less than your general “nothing is wrong, everything is right and acceptable” message you’d get plenty of other places (and, no matter what they think, is definitely not something Jesus ever taught). Instead of picking up the ball and really answering the question — that real Christians are messy, imperfect people who are saved through grace and should seek to share grace and mercy everywhere they go, holding fast to their convictions while accepting others in love no matter what — they just sort of let it go and the movie ends with the fundamentalists being the bad guys and the outcasts banding together as friends.

I’d really recommend this movie more for Christians than non-Christians; the filmmakers seem to be exclusively speaking to one group only here. It was a bit agonizing to see these hurting and rejected people that lived in this harsh universe without a real Christian in sight, but it was challenging too. Your faith cannot be real unless you’ve challenged it, questioned it, and put it through the fire in your life, and I welcome any movie that can intelligently do that.

Plus, it was some sort of relief to laugh at characters that went through a similar high school experience as I did, and I’ll be rooting for them to find their place and God’s grace long after the credits ended.

Didja notice?

  • The resemblance between Eva Amurri and actress Susan Sarandon? That would be because Amurri is her daughter. Excellent genes, SS!
  • All of the songs played by the Christian rock band at prom were actually by the Replacements, a popular 80’s alternative band. Rock!
  • The Hebrew characters on Cassandra’s necklace read… uh, well, “Cassandra.”


  1. I first heard about the movie during a Q&A with Jars of Clay, who were asked to be the Christian rock band. When they read the script, they declined and told them that they could not use any Jars songs in the movie.
    I saw it with a couple of friends when they were trying to start a post college group at church. The one that picked it had notoriously bad taste in movies. None of us cared for the movie as the message we got was that the more outcast anti-Christian a person was that it made them a better person because, tolerance. YMMV, but that was our consensus.

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