For over a year, evangelicals have feared Saved! would harshly attack them all as hypocritical, judgmental, and intolerant. The truth is, the movie is ultimately pro-faith and does make some perceptive criticisms of evangelicals. But not all is well.
The problem is a lack of balance between hypocritical, judgmental Christians and loving, accepting Christians. In fact, the movie almost exclusively shows two kinds of people—hypocritical, judgmental Christians who cause problems, and loving, accepting non-Christians who make things right.
The film is set at a Midwestern Baptist high school and centers on Mary (Jena Malone), a devoted Christian who says Jesus is the center of her life. When her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), reveals he's gay, Mary is so shocked she bumps her head. In a daze, she has a vision of Jesus telling her, "Dean needs you now. Do everything you can to help him." Mary chooses to do this by sleeping with him.
Before Mary finds out whether her therapy worked, Dean's parents learn of his sexual preference and sends him to Mercy House, a Christian rehab center specializing in "de-gayification." Soon after, Mary discovers she's pregnant and goes into a crisis of faith. How could God do this?
When other students find out her secret, they pour on the judgment and spite—especially the hypocritical holy-roller Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Mary finds support and compassion from the school's only non-Christians: the Jewish Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin), who points out early on that he is not a Christian. The only Christian—although we don't hear much about his faith—who shows any acceptance to the lost and disgruntled Mary is her cardboard love interest, Patrick (Patrick Fugit), the principal's son.
For the most part, the basic idea behind Saved! is not all that offensive to Christians. It tries to document the journey of believers as they question faith, figure out its real meaning, and make it their own. The movie tries hard not to go after all Christians but instead points out that immature believers can easily miss Christ's message entirely.
In doing this, the movie explores—and satires—the sometimes hateful and hypocritical ways some Christians treat homosexuals and anyone with apparent sin. In addition, Saved! pokes fun at the Christian bubble evangelicals can live in—presenting their own awards like "Best Christian Interior Decorator." These criticisms are valid and could make some of us think about our behaviors—and that "bubble."
In fact, a few of the film's arguments will make Christians nod in agreement. When Dean is confronted by prejudice for being gay, he says, "I know in my heart Jesus still loves me." Similarly, when Hilary Faye realizes she's been hypocritical, she asks, "Do you think Jesus still loves me?" She's told, yeah, he does.
The movie even ends on a faith-affirming note when Mary, surrounded by loved ones, admits she may have misunderstood what God wanted when it came to helping Dean. But she asks: "So what would Jesus do? I don't know. But in the meantime, we'll figure it out together." Very well said.
The problem, though, is in the satire's messiness, mostly resulting from poor filmmaking. It is pro-faith, but three miscues confuse things and undermine its messages.
First of all, it's the non-Christians who exclusively provide all the lessons. For example, Cassandra's the only person to lovingly embrace Mary when discovering her pregnancy; Hilary Faye just abducts her and performs a forced exorcism. And when Hilary Faye eventually learns her lesson, it is Roland—a non-Christian—who tells her Jesus still loves her.
Second, Hilary Faye is so exaggerated—without an equal foil—that the unintended message is, "All evangelicals are like this." The point of the character is to show someone who doesn't get true Christianity, but when she comically throws the Bible at someone and yells, "I'm full of Christ's love," it doesn't say, "See, she doesn't get it." Instead, because there's no alternative, it communicates that Christians are crazy. Saved! needs a strongly positive, level-headed, loving Christian—firm in his or her faith—in order to counteract Hilary Faye's damage.
The third problem is that while spoofing Christians for not being tolerant enough, the movie's alternative is simply this: If God let it happen or if you are happy, then how can it be wrong? This doesn't translate well to a world that, as Saved! even tries to argue, isn't black and white. It's also dangerously confusing for believers in the Bible, a book that does specifically draw lines regarding moral behavior.
All this messiness is caused not only by poor filmmaking but also a general resentment. Several easy jokes and absurd stereotypes seem to stem purely from bitterness. Hilary Faye and Mary—inexplicably—fire guns at a shooting range. Scenes in the Christian school's sex ed class are groan-worthy. And the movie's Christians are almost universally naïve and cheesy. These jokes suggest someone behind Saved! was burned by the church, and this is their revenge—not purely an attempt to explore.
Any legitimate satire and social commentary in Saved! is blunted by this bitter malice and the messy connotations. But that's fitting for a poorly made movie. It is rarely genuinely funny, the characters are wooden, and the isn't clever or unique. The bright spot is the acting of Jena Malone who, in films like this and Life as a House, has shown real talent.
It is unfortunate the rest of the movie isn't handled with as much talent or care, because Saved! could have been a gently-challenging but affirming movie about the evangelical subculture—if handled with the same love, acceptance and tolerance it preaches.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- How do the Christians in this film resemble or differ from Christians you know? How does the model of Christianity you see in your family, church and school stack up against how the Bible instructs Christians to live? How about the model of faith depicted in Saved!?
- What direct criticisms or arguments about Christians in this movie made you angry? Which challenged you or made you think?
- According to the movie, what does it mean to be saved? What does it mean to you? What does the Bible say?
- The movie contends Christians need to be more accepting and tolerant of others. One character says, "If God meant us to be the same, why did he make us different?" Can you balance love and acceptance while standing against sin? How?
- Mary has a crisis of faith. Is it understandable? What good comes of it? Should we raise questions about God? Why or why not?
- The film's distributor also has released its own Bible Study for youth groups based on the movie.
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The movie is harsh on Christian teens. There's a lot of swearing and discussions and jokes about sex. Sexual content includes Dean fondling Mary's breasts (covered by a swimsuit). When they have sex, the camera focuses on the rocking bedside table. There's also a weird Passion play scene where the boy playing Jesus is barely clothed and is overtly made to look sexy on the cross.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 09/19/02
Speaking of films that will potentially provoke strong reactions from Christian moviegoers, there's a film in the works called Saved mentioned in the September 14 issue of The Vancouver Sun. It begins filming in Vancouver soon, with a cast that includes A Walk to Remember's Mandy Moore, Home Alone's Macaulay Culkin, Almost Famous's Patrick Fugit, Jena Malone, Heather Matarazzo, Mary-Louise Parker, and other familiar faces. It's being described as a "dark teen comedy" about a pregnant teenager suffering peer pressure from fellow Christian students at a Baptist high school. The film is produced by Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who described it as a sort of "monster vampire high school" movie, in which the monsters are "Jesus-freak teenagers."from Film Forum, 12/05/02
In other movie news, Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity), reports that a few Christian rock bands have turned down the invitation to have their work appear in a new movie called Saved. Their reason? The film seems designed to ridicule Christians as evangelical zombies hunting down saveable prey. The movie, produced by rock star Michael Stipe, stars Jena Malone (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) and Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember.) Chattaway offers a plot summary and comments from the cast.from Film Forum, 01/08/04
The film most likely to cause an outcry in the Christian press is called Saved. A satire about religious legalism, Saved takes place in the corridors of a Christian high school. The students are portrayed as something akin to zombies as they surround and try to redeem one of their fellow students who has become pregnant out of wedlock. Their condemnation and judgmentalism become the stuff of horror films. Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember) plays the persecuted youth.from Film Forum, 02/05/04
Mary (Jena Malone of Donnie Darko and Cold Mountain) is a senior at American Eagle Christian High School who finds herself stuck in a difficult circumstance. She believes passionately in Jesus. But now it seems her savior might have betrayed her.
Mary believes that she had a visitation from Jesus himself, and that he told her to "convert" her homosexual friend Dean (Chad Faust) into a heterosexual. The way she decides to do this is to seduce him and give up her virginity. Shockingly, this ploy fails. Mary gets pregnant, and Dean is shipped off to a camp where they will try to force the homosexuality out of him. Back in the corridors of the Christian high school, Mary now must face the persecution of her "righteous" classmates—a cruel, judgmental, and gay-hating crowd.
The worst of her persecutors, the prima donna of the school's popular crowd, is Hilary Faye, a ruthlessly manipulative senior played by A Walk to Remember's Mandy Moore. Hilary Faye is the lead singer of the school's popular pop group—the Christian Jewels—and now she has turned against Mary, who is one of her backup singers. Meanwhile, the pop-singing egomaniac's brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin of Home Alone and Party Monster), a cynic confined to a wheelchair, is taking a different path, pairing up with a disliked Jewish girl named Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and looking to rebel against his Christian community.
The situation is made worse by the fact that Mary's mother (Mary-Louise Parker of TV's The West Wing), reportedly the number one Christian interior decorator, has a crush on one of the teachers, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan of Amateur). But Pastor Skip's son Patrick (Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous) has designs on winning Mary's heart.
Directed by Brian Dannelly from a script he wrote with Michael Urban, Saved! is certain to raise eyebrows and stoke the fires of moviegoer debate. The film reportedly ends up affirming the existence of a benevolent deity, but ends up suggesting that God wants Christians to give up any divisive convictions about sexual orientation and just become a more tolerant community that embraces everybody's differences.
The film itself was embraced by audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. There is no word yet on when it will be distributed to a larger audience.
Mainstream film critics are already giving the film some applause. David Rooney (Variety) says the film "appears bound to ruffle the feathers of religious conservatives—and may have exhausted its Utah audience at Sundance. However, the spirited comedy ultimately kneels before an all-embracing deity, which could appease the God squad provided they get through all the wickedly funny zealot-bashing that comes first."
Duane Byrge (Hollywood Reporter) calls it "an irreverent, punchy jab at the more hideous transgressions of fundamentalist Christianity. Its larkish style, combined with its anti-authoritarian bent should win some enthusiastic teen followers, as well as the Babble-onians of the Upper West Side and Hollywoodland. [But] this comedic jape delivers some sharp jabs at obvious targets, namely the boosterish excesses of American religiosity. Like the best of teen-set comedies, it lashes out at the ruling authority figures conspiring against the kids in this case, the most dominant influence at the Christian high school are the religious leaders. In Saved! … the adults are all idiots."
Don R. Lewis (Film Threat) shows an appetite for religion-bashing satire in his review. He describes Saved as "a sweet and funny movie that starts off with bite but settles into an honest feeling of happiness and acceptance for all types of people and their choices."
He explains that the film offers "a gentle exploration of why the judgments of the Catholic Church are so screwed up. Mary's journey and decisions … make great food for thought … especially for those who feel the need to adhere to many antiquated Christian philosophies. I mean, wasn't Jesus all about loving one another and not judging?"
But Mr. Lewis, haven't you just gone and judged the Catholic Church? If you're going to preach the embrace of everything and everybody, you'd better start practicing it.
He concludes, "[The movie] could change the attitudes of families who feel the need to be good Christians in this world that has drastically changed from when the guidebook was written." (Perhaps Lewis believes that Scripture's instruction— "Speak the truth in love."—has become outdated. Perhaps he would prefer it be revised to say, "Conceal the truth so as not to offend anyone or to imply that some paths might be wiser than others.")
Surely Christian communities have earned some of the jokes made at their expense. Clearly, the church is not entirely innocent on charges of judgmentalism and hypocrisy. But is the world really ready for the consequences of telling the church to surrender God's wisdom—which Christ affirmed—about right and wrong?
Religious press critics have yet to see and review Saved! You can expect a volatile and heated discussion when the film eventually finds a larger audience either on the big screen or on DVD.from Film Forum, 06/03/04
Almost exactly a year ago, Film Forum featured a survey of critics and readers regarding portrayals of Christians in film. Which were the most profound examples of Christians onscreen? Which were the most lamentable?
It is likely that Brian Dannelly's satire Saved! could end up on both lists, depending on which viewer you ask.
Saved! portrays the Christian students of a strictly evangelical Christian high school. These Jesus-praising students have embraced a superficial, judgmental, legalistic form of Christianity that leads them to treat unbelievers and troubled peers with condescension, arrogance, and "intolerance." When Mary (Jena Malone), one of the popular, outwardly pious Christian girls, finds herself pregnant after making a big mistake, she becomes a social outcast. Thus, she learns to sympathize with the other spiritual exiles in the corridors of the school—the wheelchair-bound cynic (Macaulay Culkin) and the Jewish girl (Eva Ammuri), who rejects this peer-pressure form of faith.
Most Christian film critics are appalled by the film, offended by the portrayal of Christians as judgmental, aggressively propagandistic, and condescending. Granted, Dannelly does tend to paint all Christians this way, betraying an unfortunate prejudice. But then again, the film does accurately reflect the un-Christlike behavior of certain sections of the church. Some Christians are speaking up that the film does reflect parts of Christian culture that they have personally experienced.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "The truth is, the movie is ultimately pro-faith and does make some perceptive criticisms of evangelicals. But not all is well. The problem is a lack of balance between hypocritical, judgmental Christians and loving, accepting Christians. In fact, the movie almost exclusively shows two kinds of people—hypocritical, judgmental Christians who cause problems, and loving, accepting non-Christians who make things right."
"While the film's mocking tone and unflattering wall-to-wall stereotyping of fundamentalists will leave evangelicals feeling anything but enraptured, much of what passes as humor should leave an equally bad taste in the mouths of mainline Protestants and Catholics as well," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "But turning the critical cheek, Saved! does seem sincere in trying to remind viewers that religion can be twisted into something divisive rather than unifying, and can be used as an excuse for intolerance. The film also deserves credit for showing a young, unwed mother taking responsibility for her actions, rather than opting for the easy abortion route."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The script has an obvious axe to grind regarding institutional Christianity and the actors are hamstrung into stereotypical behavior as a result." He also looks at Mandy Moore's character of Hilary Faye, concluding, "With a holier-than-thou attitude and a mind narrowed by pride and smugness, she represents what happens when love is removed from religion." In conclusion, he admits, "I would be hypocritical myself to say that hypocrisy does not exist in the church. It does and it is fair game for satire and sarcasm. But Dannelly paints such a one-sided picture that his points, even if valid, lose their emphasis."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Dannelly claims that Saved! presents 'authentic Christian teens who make poor choices, have a crisis of faith, seek answers, and ultimately emerge with a genuine faith made strong through the fire of life.' But what Dannelly considers 'genuine faith' is expressed onscreen as nothing more than feel-good, wishy-washy pluralism."
Jeremy Landes (Christian Spotlight) strictly criticizes the film in his review. In answer, Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) answered him point for point:
Landes: "Christians are depicted as notorious gossips."
Wright: "As a former church elder, I can vouch for the veracity of this charge."
Landes: "Pastor Skip begins an affair with Mary's mother, who also professes to be a believer."
Wright: "I can provide first-hand accounts of plenty of church-wrecking affairs by pastors. I mean, really, this is no secret, is it?"
Landes: "Christians, especially leaders, are depicted as liars, adulterers, and hypocrites."
Wright: "We're certainly not exempt from those failings."
Landes: "Based on this movie, one could easily get the idea that calling yourself an evangelical Christian puts you in the categories of judgmental, rude, violent, and stupid."
Wright concludes: "Why should we be surprised when satires like this—based, yes, on very justified stereotypes—come along? And why get worked up about it? The world will know we are Christ's disciples by our love, not by nice, clean little movies that depict Christian High Schoolers and teachers like the plastic little saints that we know they're not. In my book, the church has got a lot more to account for than films like Saved! Can't we save our harshest judgment for ourselves? God knows we deserve it."
Chris Utley (Hollywood Jesus) says the movie is making fun of hypocrisy, not mocking Christianity. "There are people who have walked away from the Lord because of girls (and boys and even men and women) who behave like Hilary Faye."Addressing" holier-than-thou evangelicals" (and he includes himself among them), he says, "Close your Bibles, get off your knees, and get out to the theatre. See this movie when it hits your town. When and if you feel ashamed and disgusted by the film, go to the nearest mirror and let that shame and disgust fall upon yourselves. May we repent as we drive home in our cars."
Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) says, "Those who have gone to Christian schools or grown up in the evangelical youth culture may find that the film hits a few bullseyes along the way. Full disclosure: I attended Christian schools myself, and I recognize much of the absurdity on display in this film, from the pastor who uses juvenile buzzwords and catchphrases … in an earnest attempt to sound relevant to teens, to the parallel universe we Christians have formed for ourselves, with its own skateboarding associations and interior-decorator awards."
Chattaway adds that some aspects of the movie "do not ring so true. Most significantly, the film tends to divide the characters into two camps: those who are overly pious and judgmental … and those who shrug off moral concerns with a sort of I'm-okay-you're-okay indifference. The film ends on a preachy note of its own, rejecting just about any belief or moral standard that might get in the way of letting people do their thing."
Just as Christianity Today Movies' Stefan & Jeanne Ulstein interviewed Brian Dannelly here a few weeks ago, Chattaway questioned Dannelly about the research he did for the film. The writer/director responded, "I would … go so far as to say that everything in the film is something I experienced or researched. I didn't try to make up stuff." The filmmaker does admit, however, that he could have done a better job representing "the middle-road Christian. [The Patrick character is] very kind and he never denounces his faith."
While I agree with Greg Wright, that the film's critique of Christians is well-deserved, I also agree that the kind of Christianity Brian Dannelly ends up recommending is a variety that all-too-easily excuses notions of right and wrong. While we are all loved by the God that made us, we are also encouraged to show love to each other, and that includes having the conviction to help others understand the difference between behavior that glorifies God and behavior that offends him. God makes it clear that he loves sinners, but he also tells us that he hates sin. Thus, Saved! is right about the problem, but wrong about the answer.
Many mainstream critics have also made the distinction that the film is reprimanding Christian hypocrites, not attacking the Christian faith.
MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) says, "The Automatons for Jesus who really, really need to see this movie will avoid it because they'll have been told it's anti-Christian, and Automatons for Jesus do what they're told. Saved! isn't anti anything, except perhaps intolerance. And self-righteousness. And the idea that slapping a 'Christian' label on anything makes it holy."
Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) also praises Saved! He says the movie is "arguing not against fundamentalism but against intolerance; it argues that Jesus would have embraced the cast-outs and the misfits, and might have leaned toward situational ethics instead of rigid morality. Saved! is an important film as well as an entertaining one. Jesus counseled more acceptance and tolerance than some of his followers think. By the end of the movie, mainstream Christian values have not been overthrown, but demonstrated and embraced. Those who think Christianity is just a matter of enforcing their rulebook have been, well, enlightened. And that all of this takes place in a sassy and smart teenage comedy is, well, a miracle."from Film Forum, 06/10/04
Reviewing Brian Dannelly's satire of life in a Christian high school, J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "The problem with Saved! is that it thinks it's making a realistic film, one that has something to say about contemporary teen culture and specifically evangelical culture. But with everyone but Mary a simple two-dimensional character, it's hard to take any of this seriously. It's just rehashing old clichés. And in the end, the only evangelicals we root for are the ones who largely abandon any pretense of being evangelical. If those sort of movies were made about other religious groups, people would howl in protest."from Film Forum, 06/17/04
Elsewhere, Brian Dannelly's comedy Saved! continued to draw measured applause from Christian film critics.
Alan Thomas (Movies Matter) says it's "a ruthlessly funny film that is deeply perceptive and deeply troubling. And like most parody, it's a little bit off target." He defends the film against those Christian critics who classify it as an attack on the Christian faith. "While I do not think the film was intended to ridicule or provoke Christians, it will no doubt hit very close to home for some. Unlike other subcultures, particularly the Jewish community, Christians don't have a very good track record at being able to laugh at themselves."
He does, however, criticize it for concluding that Christians should "accept whatever anyone cares to think about sexuality."
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
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