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Arts and Culture/Reel Deal
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*****THE REEL DEAL: Reviewz from the Street*****
by: Edwardo Jackson

BIASES: late 20s black male; frustrated screenwriter who favors action, comedy, and glossy, big budget movies over indie flicks, kiddie flicks, and weepy Merchant Ivory fare

SAVED! (PG-13)

MOVIE BIASES: Looks like the perfect satire for these "Passion"-ate times.
MAJOR PLAYERS: Jena Malone (Stepmom), Mandy Moore (Chasing Liberty), Macaulay Culkin (Party Monster), Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous), and co-writer/director Brian Dannelly

I need Jesus. Or at least that's what our emotionally, wartime state would seem to suggest as we are engaged in a nebulous, protracted "war on terror" against religious fundamentalist fanatics. "You're either with us or against us" claims one of our more openly religious Presidents in some time, a similar type of clarion call that is spoofed within an inch of its life in the brilliant, strikingly smart teenage satire "Saved!" And like our horrifically smudged line of separation between church and state that this country was supposedly founded upon, you're either with this film or against it.

A lot is going on at American Eagle Christian High, where a forty foot statue of Jesus shadows the campus. You've got sincere, senior Mary (Malone) who offers up her virginity to her closeted, ice skater boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) in a vain effort to straighten him out from his "spiritual, toxic condition;" Cass (Eva Amurri), the lone Jew at the school who befriends the wheelchair-bound, open-minded Roland (Culkin) and revels at shock and awe (case in point, Cass' bumper sticker: "Jesus loves you. Everyone else thinks you're an asshole"); and the flirty, "hip" Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), who says things like "Let's get our Christ on!" and "Who's down with G-O-D?" that embarrass the hell out of his mysterious, coolly self-possessed skater son Patrick (Fugit). Lording over it all is the ultimate Mean Girl, gun-trained, angel wings-toting, track suit-wearing Hilary Faye (Moore), leader of the alpha-female Christian Jewels, a "girl gang for Jesus." With all these elements bumping into each other, hilarity actually DOES ensue!

There's almost too much praise to go around. Let's start with the creator, Catholic school survivor Brian Dannelly, along with co-writer buddy Michael Urban have created a fully realized, satirical world that lives on the precipice of camp yet still is reality based. It's not hard to imagine a world (or areas in this one) where gays, pregnant teens, and heathens are shipped off to institutions like Mercy House to "fix" them from "backsliding into the flames of Hell." Dannelly's directorial debut is impressive not only from a technical, shot selection standpoint, but also from the writing side. Not only are the situations and characters funny uppercuts to the holier-than-thou sect of Christianity, but also the dialogue is earnestly hilarious. By the time Hilary Faye throws a BIBLE at the back of oh backsliding one Mary, screaming "I am FILLED with Christ love!" you're falling out of your seat with laughter.

It's that same edge deflating blatant hypocrisy that informs the movie's performances. Jena Malone, quite the capable, rangy yet unspectacular looking (re: average teenage girl) actress, is super as a straight-arrow, model Christian girl who begins to doubt the fidelity of her school's heavy-handed instruction. Macaulay Culkin is also pitch-perfect as the dryly subversive Roland, matching note for note Eva Amurri's sexpot, chain-smoking chimney of a rebel with a cause Cass. I've been wondering when Patrick Fugit would resurface in a worthy, meaty enough follow-up to his subtly amazing debut in Cameron Crowe's woefully underappreciated "Almost Famous." He's found it in "Saved!" - taller, hair floppier, more self-assured and confident. In a society of bible-thumping hypocrites that inhabit American Eagle, Fugit's Patrick is an example of a good, free-thinking, TOLERANT Christian boy who's actually experienced the real world. Among supporting notables is Mary-Louise Parker (TV's "West Wing") as Mary's vacant lot for a single mother and teen movie requisite, the always reliable (and age-defying - the girl's gotta be over thirty by now) Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse).

But the tour de force performance belongs to Mandy Moore. Fully solidifying the Crush I began to bestow upon her in the charming but disposable "Chasing Liberty," Moore is out of control – in a GREAT way. Her Jesus freak cum Beyonce Hilary Faye is one of the greatest characters created in a long time. Moore gets all the best lines, as her Hilary Faye lives a daily crusade to impose Christ's will on everyone around her, whether they want it or not (HF sees Cass as the consummate challenge), employing a demonically robotic sweetness that thinly veils her use of religion as artifice to control everything around her. Getting someone "saved" is just another tool in her arsenal of peer pressure and intimidation via perfected image control. It's a brilliant character under the inspired comedic direction of Dannelly, and an equally brilliant performance to match. Never once did I think of Mandy Moore, cheesy pop singer. My love affair with her is now complete.

But everyone doesn't – and won't – love this movie, which is a shame. As expected, the religious right and others are attacking the film, claiming it's Christian bashing and the like. I just wish they weren't so predictable with their de rigueur, knee-jerk responses, most of whom probably haven't even seen the movie. So it's a masterpiece of faith to make a movie that beats the crap out of Jesus for two hours like "The Passion" but it's blasphemy to make a movie that satirizes some of the frauds and phonies who soldier on in his name yet are really dragging it through the mud? Oh please. It takes someone secure in their faith to analyze it – and themselves – honestly enough to properly satirize it. And what kind of world do we live in – a world that is realistically located somewhere in Bush's voting power base – that has a teenage girl praying for cancer instead of pregnancy?

This is when you know you've crafted the perfect satire – when the anticipated reactionary responses come rolling in along with the kudos. It is this kind of divisiveness and freedom of expression that makes our country great, church and state be damned (uh oh! Hilary Faye just punched my one-way ticket to Damnation!). It's the kind of country that desperately needs this debate, this type of intelligent teen satirical flashpoint, not only to see how we are raising our kids in a morally ambiguous world under a cloak of hypocrisy and calling it religion, but also to maintain our fundamental system of checks and balances that this country actually was founded upon.

Mary asks, "Why would God make us all so different if he wanted us all to be the same?" My point exactly. I don't need Jesus. Jesus needs us. All of us.

@@@@ REELS
An urban legend/instant classic.

Like what you read? Agree/disagree with The Reel Deal? Think he's talkin' out his...HUSH YO' MOUF! (I'm only talkin' about The Reel Deal!) Email him at ReelReviewz@aol.com!

Edwardo Jackson is the author of the novels EVER AFTER and NEVA HAFTA, (Villard/Random House), a writer for UrbanFilmPremiere.com, and an LA-based screenwriter. Visit his website at www.edwardojackson.com

© 2004, Edwardo Jackson

© Copyright 2004

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