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Friday, June 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Religious satire "Saved" nearly finds salvation

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review

**
"Saved!," with Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Eva Amurri, Martin Donovan, Mary-Louise Parker. Directed by Brian Dannelly, from a screenplay by Dannelly and Michael Urban. 92 minutes. Rated PG-13 for strong thematic issues involving teens sexual content, pregnancy, smoking and language. Meridian.
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During its snappy first hour, Brian Dannelly's black comedy "Saved!" is reminiscent of Alexander Payne's marvelous 1999 satire "Election" in its sharp, take-no-prisoners characterizations, smart dialogue and recognizably grungy high-school milieu.

The film centers on Mary (the charmingly freckled Jena Malone), a senior at American Eagle Christian High School and member of "a girl gang for Jesus." In the unfortunate aftermath of an effort to help "save" her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), who fears he might be gay, Mary finds herself pregnant — and questioning the beliefs she once held so fervently.

Dannelly, who also co-wrote the film, shows that his heart is in the right place — the film ultimately conveys a sweet message of nonjudgmental acceptance and family love. But by the time we get there, the satire has mostly melted away, as if the movie were just a little afraid of itself. It's not a fatal flaw, but it's disappointing; where "Election" stayed true to its characters (and was unafraid of an ambiguous ending), "Saved!" settles for all's-well-that-ends-well smiles.

Nonetheless, there's plenty of fun to be had along the way, particularly in a surprisingly note-perfect performance from Mandy Moore as Mary's best friend, Hilary Faye. She's all rosy-skinned wholesomeness, with an edge of granite. "Good prayer!" she chirps to a classmate, like an ecclesiastical cheerleader. And she spends some non-school hours at the Emmanuel Shooting Range (whose slogan is "An Eye for an Eye") — Hilary Faye, you see, is saving herself for marriage, "using force where necessary."

Malone, with her very-real-girl vulnerability (her face has a pale, unfinished look), makes a touching center for the film, and Eva Amurri (Susan Sarandon's lanky daughter) shows a talent for deadpan as Cassandra, the only Jewish kid at American Eagle. And Dannelly gives them all dialogue that snaps like a teenager's gum.

"Saved!" ultimately can't quite go the distance, but it's a promising debut by a filmmaker to watch.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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