I went into this movie assuming it was going to have some heavy handed propaganda about conservative, born-again intolerance. It's more complex than that. Yes, there is a constant buzz about "Jesus" at this high school, where wall displays showcasing "Creationism" share space with posters showing a smiling George W. Bush. But to discount this movie as just another example of left-wing Hollywood bashing of moral-values types who condemn liberals at the drop of a hat would be very short sighted.
For one thing, our hero, played by Jena Malone (Contact, Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Donne Darko, Cold Mountain) is facing both a moral dilemma and pregnancy. A devout Christian, she has to deal with the fact that her boyfriend is gay and that she is pregnant. The interesting plot twist is that the people she become closest to are the school misfits, the ones who are not bible-thumpers but the ones who are a bit out of the school's mainstream. (That Jesus himself is known to have non-judgmentally recruited sinners to his cause is well documented. I assume this element of the plot is probably intentional.)
What I liked the most about this film was that it addresses hypocrisy and intolerance in a fresh and clever way. In one scene, Jena Malone's character Mary argues with the school's most "popular" girl (played brilliantly by Mandy Moore) after an abortive attempt to "exorcise" her. The argument becomes heated and the girl hits Mary in the back with a thrown Bible. Mary turns around and yells, "This is not a weapon!"
In another scene, the parents of Mary's boyfriend have discovered his homosexuality and send him packing to a Christian "Mercy House" for "de-gayification." Later we are told that Mercy House is designed to provide comfort to the people who send their kids there, not the kids themselves.
Despite the simplistic religious underpinning of this high school, what we see in this movie is the real moral dilemmas that these young people face. While the adults have been able to transfer their homophobia to most of the young people at the school under the guise of religious justification, Mary instead desperately seeks a way to help him -- and offers herself. This is a profoundly moral decision, albeit misguided.
Mary has her baby. But her boyfriend has fallen in love with another young man at Mercy House, also sent there because he's gay. And the school's popular girl gets her comeuppance for trying to frame Mary and her clique of misfits. The ending is almost too tidy, but along the way we have seen some moral dilemmas addressed in a fresh and different way.
As someone who spent 12 years in Catholic schools, and whose children have also attended private religious schools,I have some familiarity with what it's like to have religious and moral teaching pounded into you day in and day out. These teachings do have a direct impact on young people at a most vulnerable time of their lives. How they are presented, and by whom, is sometimes as important as what is presented.
It's sad though to see such teachings include intolerance and fear, as shown in this film with regard to homosexuality. While this element is treated as a basic plot point, I cannot help but feel sadness at what a place like "Mercy House" must do to its young charges as they attempt to "brainwash away" young people's homosexuality. That such cruelty and intolerance are so institutionalized is a sobering fact that hovers in the background of this movie and, along with Mary's pregnancy dilemma, propels it way above being "just another teen comedy."
It's interesting to check out other reviews of this film on the web. As the producer and director point out in their commentary on this DVD (recorded 8 days before the release of the film) they were already receiving criticism from the religious "right." That's to be expected, as satire to operate has to ruffle some feathers. One review criticizes the film for not presenting better adult role models. Duh? This is a teen comedy; very few teen comedies present adults as central characters or positive role models. Maybe such critics would prefer the way adults are presented in Hell House? Another reviewer states that this movie presents smoking in a positive light. Huh?
I find it interesting that Catholic education has been a target of satire for as long as I remember; here we see another branch of the Christian faith being skewered, so maybe it's a form of justice that a movie like Saved! comes along to spread the satirical jabbing around. You know, sort of "even things out," the way Woody Allen used to satirize New York Jews.
But what sets this movie apart is that it isn't just a comedy. At its core it does address some real issues, albeit in an unusual and (some would say a disrespectful) way. To which I say, welcome to the real world of Free Speech.