An irreverent teen pic about a high school for born-again Christians, "Saved!" appears bound to ruffle the feathers of religious conservatives -- and may have exhausted its Utah audience at Sundance. Subversive but sweet-natured item may not be an automatic connect for kids but could build serious cult cachet.

An irreverent teen pic about a high school for born-again Christians, “Saved!” appears bound to ruffle the feathers of religious conservatives — and may have exhausted its Utah audience at Sundance. However, the spirited comedy ultimately kneels before an all-embracing deity, which could appease the God squad provided they get through all the wickedly funny zealot-bashing that comes first. Subversive but sweet-natured item may not be an automatic connect for kids but could build serious cult cachet that will pay off in home entertainment formats.

While it has a far more congenial bite to its humor, “Saved!” recalls “Pumpkin,” UA’s commercially ill-fated Sundance title of two years back, in both its political incorrectness and the liberal message it delivers in the final act. Both films also get off to an exhilarating start and then suffer from uneven energy levels, though “Saved!” is considerably tighter than the earlier pic. And the new comedy has at least one key marketing advantage in the inspired casting of Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin, both milking generous comic dividends from their offscreen personas — respectively, good girl and bad boy — in roles as a self-righteous crusader and a paraplegic cynic.

Central character is Mary (Jena Malone), who lost her father to the angels at age 3 and has been gripped by religious fervor ever since. Voted No. 1 Christian interior decorator, her mother (Mary-Louise Parker) is hot for Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), who teaches and preaches at American Eagle Christian High. A member of the elite senior Christian Jewels group, Mary sings in the school’s inspirational God-pop trio led by scarily self-possessed Hilary Faye (Moore).

While playing a truth game in the pool with figure-skater boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust), Mary learns he’s gay. A bump on the head adds to the shock, causing her to confuse her maintenance man rescuer for a vision of Jesus, instructing Mary to save Dean from the path of perversion. She does this by giving up her virginity, convinced God will restore it later. Instead, she gets pregnant, while Dean — whose parents find his hidden Honcho magazine — is shipped off to be de-gayed at a Christian treatment facility.

Feeling betrayed by Jesus, Mary wrestles with her faith, resisting the romantic attentions of Pastor Skip’s hot skateboarding son Patrick (Patrick Fugit). Meanwhile, junior evangelist Hilary Faye leads prayer groups for Dean and battles in vain to turn the school’s slutty lone Jew Cassandra (Eva Amurri) onto Christ. Instead, Cassandra hooks up with Hilary Faye’s “differently abled” brother Roland (Culkin), who’s eager to break away from sis and rebel.

Building to a crescendo on prom night, the comedy steadily peels away the hypocrisy of the characters — most of all, manipulative Hilary Faye — and ultimately redeems them.Without entirely negating its cheeky disrespect for all things devout, the script by first-time director Brian Dannelly and writing partner Michael Urban lays out an uplifting agenda that affirms a less dogmatic, more accepting brand of faith and the existence of a nonjudgmental God while advocating the need to look for goodness in everyone.

Dannelly’s gleeful sense of fun and affection for the characters prevail even as the pace sputters midway through the slightly awkward choreography of the final act. As much as any real shortcomings in these departments, however, the energy dip is due to the giddy heights of the comedy’s establishing scenes, which set the tone at an impossibly infectious peak.

Malone brings an appealing feistiness and backbone to Mary’s confused and ostracized state, along with a questioning intelligence that supplies the quirky comedy with its soul. Likewise Culkin — continuing, after “Party Monster,” to reinvent himself — and Amurri, who reveal the humanity and tenderness beneath their characters’ trashy facades, without overselling the sweet side. Development of the outsider relationship between wheelchair-bound Roland and out-of-control Cassandra represents the film’s chief romantic pleasure, more so than the Mary-Patrick connection, which is held back by under-use of Fugit.

Other cast members all have their moments, including Parker, Donovan and Heather Matarazzo — an iconic reminder of another subversive school comedy, “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Valerie Bertinelli makes a droll cameo appearance as herself in a weepy Lifetime cancer movie.

But the real surprise is Moore, who’s infinitely better served by this material than by her recent excursions into vanilla sentimentality, “How to Deal” and Chasing Liberty.” Recalling her harder-edged performance in “The Princess Diaries,” Moore’s role here is a controlling monster cloaked in a patina of sanctimonious piety and hidden insecurity. And if there’s a criticism to be leveled at the actress’s highly amusing turn, it’s that the director cuts away too early from Moore’s exuberantly cheesy pop stylings as she croons for Christ.

As is to be expected in a film on which Michael Stipe is a principal producer, music is a key factor. However, rather than just the usual random grab-bag of void-filling vocals that fuels so many teen movies, the soundtrack here is peppered with pseudo-religious pop, like Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” and most notably, a cover by Moore of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”

Saved!

Production

An MGM release of a United Artists presentation of a Single Cell Pictures, Infinity Media production. Produced by Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Michael Ohoven, William Vince. Co-executive producers, Kerry Rock, David Prybil, Kaye Dyal, Steven Gagnon. Directed by Brian Dannelly. Screenplay, Dannelly, Michael Urban.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Bobby Bukowski; editor, Pamela Martin; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisor, Jon Leshay; production designer, Tony Devenyi; art director, Kristina Lyne; set decorators, Laura Killam, James Willcock; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; sound (Dolby Digital), Eric J. Batut; line producer, Cal Shumiatcher; assistant director, Peter Whyte; casting, Coreen Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 21, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Mary - Jena Malone Hilary Faye - Mandy Moore Roland - Macaulay Culkin Patrick - Patrick Fugit Tia - Heather Matarazzo Cassandra - Eva Amurri Pastor Skip - Martin Donovan Lillian - Mary-Louise Parker Dean - Chad Faust Veronica - Elizabeth Thai Herself - Valerie Bertinelli

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