Saved! — exclamation mark included — is directed by Brian Dannelly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Michal Urban, with an eye to the religious prejudices of the movie industry. He takes the theme of such recent movies as Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen or Mean Girls — that is the hothouse rivalries and hatreds of teenage girls — and turns the mean girls into Christians. Nor is their Christianity merely incidental to their nastiness. Like most movie Christians, they are either fanatical to the point of madness or merely hypocritical. Or both, as is the case with Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), the meanest of the mean girls at American Eagle Christian Academy who makes life miserable for Mary (Jena Malone) and her outsider friends, the Jewish Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and the paraplegic Roland (Macaulay Culkin), who are the only cool people in the school.

Cool people are, of course, by Hollywood convention, unbelievers, and the film naturally takes it for granted that those who believe in Christ’s message of love for all mankind are more likely than others to be hateful, scheming prigs, devoted only to gossip and backbiting. Hilary Faye and the others get the chance to show their stuff here when Mary, in a desperate attempt to “cure” her boyfriend (Chad Faust) of his homosexuality and after getting (as she thinks) a personal assurance from Jesus that it is the Christian thing to do, becomes pregnant. The ridicule of the traditional Christian attitude to homosexuality is all part of the political subtext of the film, which also shows us a poster of George W. Bush up on the wall in Mary’s classroom along with a display devoted to “Creationism.” If you listen carefully you can also hear Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan) praying that — well, somebody — may “keep the presidency.”

Mr Donovan is hardly the first person you would think of in connection with such a role. But his lugubrious thoughtfulness, which got him his start in the movies of Hal Hartley actually works quite well in connection with a “with it” preacher who has Elmer Gantry-like secrets of his own but whose professional stock-in-trade is a cheerleader-like enthusiasm for G-O-D (“Gimmee a G!. . .”) He is just one of the movie’s good jokes. My favorite, however, is when, the Cassandra, the school’s lone Jewish pupil at the school spots Mary’s pregnancy and confides her suspicions to Roland. When he asks her how she knows, she replies: “There’s only one reason a Christian girl comes down to the Planned Parenthood.”

Startled, Roland asks: “She’s planting a pipe bomb?”

Like most of Saved’s humor, the joke is funny even though it is nasty and unfair to the Christian youths that are the too-easy target of its satire — and, of course, it bears little relation to the real world, in which no Planned Parenthood office has ever, so far as I know, been blown up by a Christian schoolgirl.

But at least this film does have something to satirize, which is more than can be said for most of the alleged satire of the toast of Cannes, Michael Moore. Mainly this is the absurdity of Christian efforts to be “cool,” as when Pastor Skip shouts with enthusiasm: “Let’s get our Christ on; let’s kick it Jesus-style.” Do even Christian schoolkids take this kind of thing seriously? Perhaps some do, but most must surely be as aware as are the “cool” themselves that they and all their works are the spawn of Satan. Are the pathetic few who prance about like Pastor Skip, trying to ingratiate themselves with the young, really worth the satiric effort?

And where the film may capture the absurdity of religion at the margins, it has no positive vision of its own. Its Christians may be deluded but hardly so much so — as the more serious kind of movie-goer may think — as the film-makers themselves, for whom all the problems of the world that religion addresses and all the fragile consolations it offers can be airily dismissed with a Hollywoody assurance that we can be perfectly happy and content in the world by doing what we feel like doing. Whatever else may be the truth of G-O-D, we can be certain He has not organized His world in that way.

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