Sunday, July 31, 2005

#11: More Than Meets the Eye in SAVED! 6/17/04 I was once stranded for three days in downtown Bristol, Tennessee, waiting for a replacement radiator following an unfortunate encounter with a pick-up truck. During those three days I discovered Southern Bible TV. Talk shows, cartoon shows, game shows, news shows, dramas & comedies, an entire network of programming re-cast in fundamentalist Christian terms. I watched – fascinated & pretty much captive – for hours at a time. After seeing Brian Dannelly’s new film, SAVED! I’ve thought about those three days. SAVED! covers a year in the lives of a handful of teen-agers. They live through several pretty typical teen dilemmas, except that these occur at American Eagle Christian High School, somewhere in Maryland. And, right away the movie highlights the polarizing issues of homosexuality & teen pregnancy, & throws in for good measure an opening scene in which one character objects that Jesus might not have been white. Here’s the cast of characters: Singer Mandy Moore plays Hillary Faye, a classic bully masquerading as organizer of prayer circles & inspirational singer with an earnest trio, the Christian Jewels. Her loyalty doesn’t last long for Mary (played by Jena Malone), whose boyfriend Dean confesses he thinks he’s gay. Before his parents ship him off to Mercy House for de-programming, Mary tries “saving” him & gets pregnant. She hides this successfully almost until the Senior Prom, thanks to Hillary Faye’s wheel-chair bound brother Roland (played with delicious wit by Macauley Culkin) & a splendid Eva Amurri as Cassandra, the nonconformist rebel. This outsider – the school’s only Jew – has landed at American Eagle as a last resort after a lot of bad behavior & expulsions from other schools. Mary’s mother (played by often under-rated comic actress Mary-Louise Parker of FRIED GREEN TOMATOES fame) gets involved with Pastor Skip, whose quietly likable son patiently hankers after Mary, undeterred by pregnancy, questionable companions or the stigma of Dean’s preferences. The actors playing high school students here are almost too old for their roles. All pushing 20 or more, only Jena Malone still pulls off looking 15 & the innocence that implies. But maybe Casting needed actors confident enough for just a little more bite. Here’s one reason why: Have a look at Tina Fay’s MEAN GIRLS, also still playing locally. Hillary Faye easily holds her own with that movie’s girl gang leader in the nasty department. In fact, many of these young people – heroes & villains alike - display an almost breath-taking capacity for really mean pranks on one another. I don’t remember them as the best years of my life either. Dannelly himself describes his movie as “MEAN GIRLS meets THE PASSION OF CHRIST.” MEAN GIRLS is clearly satire, but I think SAVED! aspires to something else. SAVED! has been billed as a satire on religious-right intolerance, & castigated by some fundamentalist preachers as evil. I suspect this comes of several critical plot outcomes: in the end, Mary’s mother doesn’t demonize her pregnancy & the young characters we instinctively root for unanimously decide that Dean’s being gay is alright. But at least one reviewer has criticized SAVED! as too “timid” to share the same screen with such cult favorite teen satires as the 1989 HEATHERS, an over-the-top early Winona Rider vehicle that addressed teen suicide. It is tempting to say the problem is one of the film’s own tone – that this film can’t decide whether it’s a satire or more serious. TV will help us here. For example, when this movie opens with its title in a blue sky with puffy white clouds & white letters with rays of light coming out of them, it’s obviously referencing “Touched by an Angel” - not a satire. Even though the slang-talking Pastor Skip verges on both the ridiculous & the hypocritical, he has winning human doubts. He belongs in “Joan of Arcadia” much more than in HEATHERS. Hillary Faye’s brand of prayer may have her throwing a Bible at Mary’s head while shrieking that she’s full of Christ’s love, but Cassandra’s contrite plea that she be able to find Roland after a fight is as authentic a moment of prayer as I’ve seen anyplace. That the film’s only Jewish character has that moment makes all the characters more human. And Pastor Skip’s son arrives on the scene because he’s been away with a Christian skate-boarding tour – now that would fit right in with the TV channel in Bristol, Tennessee. I return to Bristol, Tennessee because the young fundamentalist Christians portrayed in SAVED! aren’t isolated from popular culture, nor do they reject their own religion in any wholesale way. Instead they appropriate & embrace aspects of secularism as well as manage some critical thinking about religious dogma & rules. I remember myself back in Bristol, Tennessee, unsure how to take that TV channel. I’ve asked a friend of mine to go see SAVED! so we could compare notes about when we’re supposed to laugh. More than any indecision in the film’s tone, the real issue here is that most non-fundamentalists don’t know how to take this surge of religion-as-lifestyle into the mainstream either. SAVED! succeeds as a human tale without reducing either its characters or its cultural setting to parody. This movie’s refusal to be easily disparaging is edgier & more useful to us all than potshots would be. (881)