In a year that has witnessed a bizarre religious phenomenon called The Passion of the Christ, any movie concerning faith comes under closer scrutiny. Saved!, which opened last week at the Roxy in Burlington, is a black comedy about born-again teens. Although director/co-writer Brian Dannelly's interesting debut feature goes after the potential hypocrisy of those who profess moral superiority, it's far too even-handed.
At American Eagle Christian High School, the kids may be devout, but they're also caught up in the kind of intense social milieu recently examined in Mean Girls. Hilary Faye, played by pop singer Mandy Moore, is the queen bee with a nasty streak thinly disguised by a holier-than-thou smile. One of her best friends is Mary (Jenna Malone), whose sweet nature becomes sidelined because she's thrilled to be part of the cool crowd.
While Mary and her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) are swimming together, he confides his attraction to same-sex relationships. Dazed, she has an underwater vision of Jesus -- actually a bearded pool guy -- commanding her to do whatever it takes to counteract those tendencies. In deciding to sacrifice her chastity, she reasons that the Lord will forgive a virginal heart. The couple succumbs to sin.
Nonetheless, Chad's parents find a male skin mag under his bed and ship him off to rehab for "de-gayification." Mary soon discovers that she's pregnant. She can't confide in her widowed mother (Mary-Louise Parker), who has fallen for the principal, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). He's the kind of clergyman who tries to impress his adolescent charges with pseudo-hip jargon such as "Who's down with G.O.D.?" and "Let's get our Christ on."
Alienated from the school's judgmental Bible-believers, Mary turns to two outcasts. They happen to be the most complex characters in the ensemble cast. Hilary Faye's sardonic brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin), who has used a wheelchair since a childhood accident left him paraplegic, sees through his sister's manipulative tactics. Rebellious Cassandra (Eva Amurri, the real-life daughter of Susan Sarandon) is the only Jew at American Eagle. Her purple car bears a bumper sticker that reads, "Jesus loves you," right next to one that proclaims, "Everyone else thinks you're an asshole."
Patrick (Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous fame), who falls for Mary, is another misfit. In a class of straight arrows he's a longhaired skateboarder -- and Pastor Skip's son. The lad is just back from visiting his mother in Latin America, where she lives full-time. All is not kosher, it seems, in the preacher's house of everlasting virtue.
Some of the dialogue is wonderfully edgy. When Mary is spotted emerging from Planned Parenthood before her secret has been revealed, Cassandra suggests that there's only one reason a Christian girl would go to such a clinic. In response, Roland's first guess is that she was planting a pipe bomb.
Unfortunately, that kind of sharp writing is not consistent throughout the script, which often opts for a can't-we-all-get-along political correctness. It stands in sharp contrast to Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth, a 1996 satire of the anti-abortion movement that also milks pro-choice forces for humor. And his Election, released in 1999, skewers high school politics with far more devilish fun than can be found in Saved!.
Dannelly apparently wants to lampoon fundamentalism without really offending anyone, so he both ridicules and respects evangelical fervor. Jeezum Crow, make up your mind.
Documentaries are hot this summer, and not just because of Fahrenheit 9/11. During a season normally dominated by escapist entertainment, people appear to be relishing non-fiction fare with an educational twist. To keep up with the zeitgeist, the Mountain Top Film Festival is presenting Stephanie Black's Life and Debt on July 13. The 7 p.m. screening at the Eclipse Theater in Waitsfield will be followed by a question-and-answer session with one of the film's talking heads, Jamaican activist and philosopher Ras I-Vy.
The 86-minute production illustrates how globalization can devastate Third World countries. It focuses on the troubled economy of Jamaica, where long-term indebtedness to such international lending organizations as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has contributed to the erosion of local agriculture and industry.
Author Jamaica Kincaid, a North Bennington resident who hails from Antigua, provides the voice-over narration. The music comes courtesy of Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers, Bob Marley, Buju Banton, Harry Belafonte, Peter Tosh and others.
For more information and reservations, call 496-8994 or visit www.mountaintopfilmfestival.com.