'Saved!' offers message of tolerance amid satire

"Saved!" puts a new spin on two fashionable movie genres. One is the teen-girl picture, which has provided refreshing recent fare such as "Mean Girls."

The other is the film with religious interests, represented by "The Passion of the Christ" as well as "The Gospel of John" and the reissue of Monty Python's witty "Life of Brian."

"Saved!" centers on Mary, whose single mom sends her to an evangelical high school - where mom's special friend, Pastor Skip, just happens to be the principal - for a wholesome education.

Evangelical schools can be diverse, though, and some of Mary's classmates aren't exactly what her mother had in mind. One is Hilary Faye, a mean girl who masks her machinations from others (and herself) under a cloak of religious zeal. Others include Hilary's brother Roland, a "differently abled" boy with a wheelchair, and Cassandra, the school's lonely Jewish pupil.

And then there's Dean, who confides to Mary that he's starting to think he may be gay. Mary decides it's her duty to keep him on the heterosexual path, so she makes love with him, just once. Next thing she knows she's pregnant, earning the enmity of Hilary Faye and her gang, who aren't very strong in the compassion department.

Not surprisingly, "Saved!" has sparked debate in religious circles. Some defend it on grounds linked to fundamentalist ideas - pointing out, for instance, that abortion isn't mentioned as an option until it's too late for Mary to have one anyway. Others find the movie's overall tone too sassy and irreverent for comfort.

What the harsher critics miss is that American teenagers tend to face similar sorts of problems in all sorts of social and domestic settings. The most important thing is how they deal with their challenges, and in "Saved!" their search for solutions usually has a faith-based inflection, even if it's not always as straight and narrow as believers might wish.

Worth noting, too, is that "Saved!" is the kind of breezy teen-pic that youngsters flock to nowadays, and this particular specimen is imaginative enough to explore an environment off Hollywood's beaten path. It's also broad-minded enough to portray the evangelical milieu with flair, satirize its foibles with restraint, and respect its ideals even as it shows how individuals may fall short.

"Saved!" was directed and co-written by newcomer Brian Dannelly, whose background includes Roman Catholic elementary school, Jewish summer camp, and Baptist high school. Reading about this, I was reminded of filmmaker Kevin Smith's defense of "Dogma," a church-related comedy far raunchier and more raucous than this one. He was raised as a Catholic and still attends church every Sunday, he pointed out, so doesn't he have the right to make a few jokes about it?

He does. And so does Mr. Dannelly, whose humor is so good-natured it helps make "Saved!" one of the season's brightest attractions.

Rated PG-13; contains sexuality and vulgarity.

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