It's too bad that the Saved poster/DVD cover has a coy, halo-ed Mandy Moore standing front and center like it's her movie or something. Because when it comes right down to it, this is Jena Malone's show. Malone has always been someone to watch -- from her nuanced and deeply affecting debut in Bastard out of Carolina to her turn as the quiet object of Jake Gyllenhaal's affection in Donnie Darko. In Saved, she plays Mary, a Christian high school student whose friends are the holier- (and more fashionably dressed) than-thou "Christian Jewels," led by the shallow, effortlessly popular Hilary Faye (Moore).
Malone's voiceovers are sweetly earnest and set the tone early on: This is a satire, but it's an affectionate one. When Mary's boyfriend tells her he's gay, she sets out trying to convince him otherwise -- certain that God won't mind a little premarital sex if it means bringing a wayward soul back to the fold. Unfortunately, God's not in the business of bargaining with high school kids, and Mary's fall from grace, in teen comedy terms, is both rapid and steep. She gets pregnant, her incontrovertibly gay boyfriend is sent to reform school and she's shunned by Hilary Faye and the other Christian Jewels.
Saved was only in Spokane for a few weeks, and perhaps the fact that fundamentalist groups across the country were protesting it had something to do with its short tenure here. Brian Dannely and Michael Urban's screenplay doesn't pull any punches when it comes to contemporary fundamentalist Christianity -- some of the funniest scenes involve clueless, hypocritical adults and cheesy Christian pop music at a school pep assembly -- but their intent is not to mock Christianity as a whole. In fact, Saved's hip, funny, "comedy" surface belies a weirdly touching core. Malone inhabits her role with fragility and intelligence, and the rest of the cast -- particularly Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit and Eva Amurri as the "unbeliever" kids who become her new friends -- are quite good. Most of all, Saved offers a poignant, timely lesson about what real Christianity should be. The script might be heavy-handed at times, but I -- cynical agnostic that I am -- couldn't help but cheer a little when Malone's character asks, "Why would God make us all so different if he wanted us to all be the same?" Amen, sister.