A teenaged boy tells his girlfriend he’s gay. She sleeps with him, thinking it will make him straight — but it doesn’t. His parents send him away. Then she discovers she’s pregnant. And while all this is going on, her widowed mother has an affair with the principal — who also happens to be a pastor. Did I mention these characters are all Christians?
Saved! is a satirical look at Christian high schools, produced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and co-written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Brian Dannelly.
The movie hits so many hot buttons it is bound to stir up controversy. But 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 (“Jesus is in the house!” “That’s very phat!”) 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.
While the film does have some major weaknesses, it owes what authenticity it has to the fact that Dannelly himself comes out of this world: he attended a Catholic elementary school and a Baptist high school, and he spent his summers at a Jewish camp.
On the phone from Los Angeles, he says he did “tons of research” to make his film as true to life as a satire can be; shortly before filming began in Vancouver two years ago, he even took the film’s cast to a youth worship service at Christian Life Assembly in Langley.
“I would even go so far as to say that everything in the film is something I experienced or researched,” Dannelly tells me. “I didn’t try to make up stuff.”
He volunteers that he may have been “pushing it” with a scene in which one girl tries to perform an exorcism on a classmate, but I reply that I saw one of my own schoolmates try to cast a demon out of her ex-boyfriend, without any mature spiritual supervision — so even this scene may not be quite as outlandish as it seems.
And yet some things in the film do not ring so true.
Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), the pious and snobby head of a clique called the ‘Christian Jewels’, smugly calls people overseas “savages” and “heathens”; there is no hint of the sincere and complex discussions I remember having with teachers and fellow students over what happens to the souls of those who have never heard the gospel.
Mary (Jena Malone), the devout girl who suffers a crisis of faith after becoming pregnant by her gay boyfriend, finds the only people she can talk to about her situation are a couple of non-Christian rebels; there is little of the support that I have seen Christian adults and students give to girls who carry their children to term.
The school offers a sex education class very reluctantly, and the pastor, who uses slides of naked bodies without genitals as a teaching aid, is embarrassed by the subject; but for my science teachers, sex education was an opportunity to marvel at the intricate design of God’s creation.
Most significantly, the film tends to divide the characters into two camps: those who are overly pious and judgmental, of which Hilary Faye is an extreme example, and those who shrug off moral concerns with a sort of I’m-okay-you’re-okay indifference.
Dannelly admits he could have explored the more complex nuances of the Christian world a little more. “If there’s a failure on my part,” he says, “it’s that the Patrick character [the new ‘cool’ kid at school who befriends Mary] was really supposed to represent the middle-road Christian. He’s very kind and he never denounces his faith.”
In fact, Dannelly notes that Patrick (Patrick Fugit) wears Christian T-shirts and the like without a hint of irony; he is at ease in his religious skin. “The character was supposed to be very grounded in his faith, and I should have trumped that up more.”
Dannelly says he refuses to believe that Christians do not have a sense of humour — so I ask if he is familiar with the magazine The Wittenburg Door or the music of Steve Taylor, both of which took very funny aim at the foibles of the Christian ghetto in the ’80s and ’90s. He isn’t.
But he says he hopes Christians will be able to talk about the issues raised by his film. To that end, Group magazine’s Bryan Belknap prepared a study guide for youth groups, which was posted on the film’s web site. “I demanded that it go on there,” says Dannelly, “because my hope with the film is that it opens up dialogue between all types of people.”
Dannelly says he tried to keep the film “open-ended” to facilitate such dialogue, but as I see it, 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. If, say, the pastor feels guilty over the affair he is having, the film suggests not that he should repent of the affair, but that he should repent of his guilt.
The film also sends the message that we should all just celebrate difference for the sake of being different, because God made us that way — except, of course, when a person expresses her difference by being a pious snob like Hilary Faye.
If the film seems somewhat confused, it may be because, as Dannelly himself admits, the film reflects his own search for God, which he has found confusing at times.
Nearly two years ago, Dannelly told the Vancouver Sun he prayed every time he went to the set. “I always say Jesus wants this movie made,” he said at the time. Now, he says that, while he did call himself a Christian back then, he would not call himself one now — partly because the ‘war on terror’ forced him to look more closely at the origins of religion.
“I got to the point where it was, ‘Oh, okay, I need to step back from this,’ and I’m not sure what I believe in,” says Dannelly, who remembers being “very much involved” in religious activities when he was young.
“I feel like I’ve already been born again — once you get saved, you’re saved — but I just think we’re on a journey, and I would never want to say that I’m one way, because you never know where you’ll be tomorrow.
“When I’m thinking about God, I think God totally gets that I’m confused or not sure right now,” he adds. “But I never thought that that was a bad thing, as long as you continue on the journey.”