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
MOVIE BIASES: Looks like the perfect satire for these "Passion"-ate
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
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.
An urban legend/instant classic.
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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