Half Salvation

'Saved!' starts off as a delightfully sinister masterpiece, but the film's second half is hugely disappointing

Anybody who grew up with Christianity as a mandate rather than a choice should get a kick out of the premise of Saved!, in which high school students armed with the power of religion manage to create hell on Earth for fellow classmates and themselves. Directed by first-timer Brian Dannelly, this uneven film starts off as a satiric slam on religious hypocrisy, but gets lost along the way to its ending, degenerating into more of a happy-go-lucky, everything's-coming-up-roses scenario rather than the merciless slag of organized religion it first seems to be.

It's a shame, because Dannelly's film shows much promise in the first half, so much so that the lack of punch in the film's finale is quite the shocker, as if Dannelly (who also co-wrote the script) became afraid of his own film.

When Mary (no coincidence in the name here), played by Jena Malone, becomes pregnant after trying to save her boyfriend from homosexuality, her status in the Christian Jewels becomes jeopardized. The Christian Jewels are the elitist clique of super Christian girls at American Eagle Christian High School, led by Hilary Faye (a very funny Mandy Moore), a young woman so religious she'll hurl her Bible at you as a means of making her point.

After being ostracized, Mary befriends Cassandra (Eva Amurri, talented daughter of Susan Sarandon), a class rebel and the school's only Jewish student. Cassandra lends a sympathetic ear and coaches Mary on the art of hiding one's pregnancy with baggy clothes. As Hilary's wheelchair-bound brother Roland, Macaulay Culkin (now almost 24 years old) is wickedly funny as a cynical atheist who has a rather liberating relationship with Cassandra that involves illegal driving, smoking and premarital sex.

Before the film's quality begins to spiral downward, there are moments of divine inspiration. Mary's underwater vision of a Jesus coming to save her, complete with a crown of thorns and trickle of blood, is a scream. So is the film's acrobatic first appearance by Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), the super-hip preacher and principal at American Eagle, who implores the student body to "get down with God!" Unfortunately, these truly deranged and bold moments are loaded into the film's first half.

Watching Saved!, I got the sense that Dannelly had set out to make an appropriately sinister film, but sanitized it in the end to get the hallowed PG-13 rating. If the film had kept it up with the controversy, rather than sending the cast to your typical high school prom ending where everybody kisses and makes up, the film might've gotten that dreaded R-rating. That would've meant less money, and God loathes box-office underachievers.

For some, the strong start might be enough to qualify the film as worthy of their time. Despite the shortcomings, the performers are consistent throughout. Moore is a revelation as Hilary, delivering on the promise she showed in the uneven but appealing A Walk to Remember. This is her best performance so far, and it could be the film that solidifies her more as an actress rather than a pop singer (although her duet with Michael Stipe on the Beach Boys track God Only Knows, played over the credits, is quite excellent).

Saved! winds up trying to be a wholesome, uplifting experience. It works much better when it is determined to be scary and cynical. Had the filmmakers been more committed to the idea of breaking ground and sticking to their initial boldness rather than trying to please everybody, we could've been looking at a cult classic with this one. Instead, we get half a movie.

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