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Movie: Saved!

Our Rating: 4.00

Some people have no sense of humor. Christian conservatives are up in arms about the teen comedy Saved! – and all because it tells the story of a born-again adolescent (Jena Malone) who sleeps with her boyfriend to "cure" him of his homosexual impulses, only to find herself knocked up as a reward. Honestly, what is there to be offended by?

Maybe they're miffed that the chica in question is named Mary. Or they could be put off by any one of the countless other subtle-as-a-flying-mallet gibes the movie tosses at youthful fundamentalism. Mary's plight plays out against the backdrop of a Christian high school, where the pecking order is as stringently defined as the one in Mean Girls, but with the holy spirit replacing Visa as the currency of exchange. On the "good" side are a picture-perfect communion queen (Mandy Moore) and her awed entourage; in the other corner, we find a Jewish bad girl (Eva Amurri), a cynic in a wheelchair (Macaulay Culkin) and the aforementioned tinkerbell (Chad Faust). Had they been alive two decades ago, the three of them could have worked for James Watt.

Needless to say, the sissy gets shunted off to a reconditioning facility when his wicked desires are exposed, strengthening Mary's resolve to keep her pregnancy secret while she wrestles with the inevitable crisis of faith. Conveniently, she discovers her condition when it's already "too late" for an abortion, giving Saved! a free pass out of genuinely risky territory. That's about the only challenge the movie ducks as it mercilessly lampoons the crushing conformity of evangelical zeal. Moore has found the role of a lifetime in Hilary Faye, a gun-toting abstinence case who believes that God has granted her license to protect her hymen by any means necessary. Meanwhile, Amurri (Susan Sarandon's daughter) is consistently hilarious as a walking bad influence.

Even unbelievers may fret that the in-school revival meetings and jokes about Christian skateboarding tours amount to (shall we say) shooting the sign of the fish in a barrel. Yet director/co-writer Brian Dannelly ultimately proves adept at finding the sympathy behind the stereotypes, tracing each major character's emotional map with a sensitivity that belies the story's us-against-them postures. At most junctures, I found the film easily as funny but less nasty than Alexander Payne's overrated Election, and with a better eye for motivation. Case in point: Mary-Louise Parker's peripheral but winning turn as Mary's mom, who channels her sexual frustration into furious bouts of physical exercise. Rather than a simple-minded indictment of religion, Saved! is a reminder that putting all your eggs in one spiritual basket often signals that you're running from something else.

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