Can a Movie 'Save' America?

Ah, election year ... A time for breast-baring, contentious films about crucifixion, abstinence promotion, and mind-boggling constitutional amendments to ban the recognition of love in order to preserve the sanctity of a "purer" form of love. And yes, a time to ask who will save your soul during an epic war being fought on two fronts (or more) — the war on terrorism and the war on immorality, the wars on the streets of Baghdad and the culture wars waged by the media, wars fought in the name of Christ and wars fought in the name of mutual respect and genuine tolerance and compassion.

Lately, whenever I turn on the television or read the news, I can't help but wonder: Where do we go from here? We could simply resign ourselves to accept — or flat out reject -- the polarizing logic taking over our culture, accept at face value the answers that The Bible purportedly offers, or treat these peculiar cultural trends as a given without seeking "divine" inspiration, no questions asked.

Or we can seek refuge from what filmmaker Brian Dannelly aptly terms "very George Bushian" times. Fleeing to Canada is, of course, one option. But given that most of us have families, jobs, and lives that we can't easily leave behind, skipping the country is not always a viable option. I thought I had found a simpler -- albeit much less permanent -- solution: Watching cheesy, seemingly mindless films about high school life. I saw Tina Fey's film Mean Girls, for instance, not because I wanted to have to think or see a potential Oscar nominee. Nope, from the trailer, I knew the plot was far from anything special and that Lindsay Lohan wouldn't be nominated for best actress. But I knew it would make me laugh, which is far more than I can say for almost anything I see in the media -- or even on the street -- these days. I'm also willing to (try to) sit through mindless high school flicks in hopes of being reminded of simpler times, times when deciding who to sit with at lunch or who to ask to prom was considered a life-altering choice, times occasionally characterized by a level of pettiness and intolerance that even our nation's leaders have yet to match.

But as I was reminded by Brian Dannelly's film Saved! — which, based on the trailer, appears to be another cheesy teenage flick with a religious twist -- narratives about high school can be a poignant metaphor for an increasingly asphyxiating political culture.

By telling the story of "good girl" Mary (Jena Malone), a student at American Eagle Christian High School who becomes pregnant when she sleeps with her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), in a desperate attempt to "save" him from becoming -- er, being -- queer, Dannelly puts forth timely questions about the existence of queerness in Christian (and human) culture, abstinence, and the contradictions and dangers of religious fundamentalism. And through the character of Hillary Faye (Mandy Moore), Mary's former best friend who is on a mission to save Dean for his "sin" of being gay and Mary for her "sins" of having premarital sex, having a gay boyfriend, getting pregnant, and falling for the minister's son Patrick (Patrick Fugit), Dannelly questions why a materialistic holier-than-thou aura working in the name of Christ to "save" so-called sinners gets conflated with a "good, pure" Christian soul. Add in Hillary Faye's attempt to "save" -- and convert -- Cassandra (Eva Amurri), a rebellious Jewish student who dates Roland, Hillary Faye's brother (Macauley Culkin), who — thanks to his wheelchair -- Hillary Faye considers both a liability to her lifestyle and a cause for her to earn "Jesus points." Put all the pieces together, and you've got a story that the Bush administration should be all too familiar with.

Coming on the heels of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and election year politics that have inspired unprecedented cultural polarization, the timing of the release of Saved! is impeccable. One can only hope that moviegoers don't dismiss the film as just another high school flick or as anti-Christian. But the latter is practically assured. From the beginning Saved! has been mired in controversy. Citing their refusal to be associated with an "anti-Christian" message, a Christian rock band and several production sites with evangelical Christian ties backed out of agreements to work with the Universal Artists and the rest of the Saved! team at the last minute.

But a closer reading reveals that Saved! doesn't promote intolerance. Rather, by refusing to embrace the unquestioning devotion and silence of religious fundamentalism, Saved! encourages dialogue regarding the contradictions of religious fundamentalism and what it means to be human. Though "believers" may choose to sit out this dialogue -- and this film -- that would be a grave mistake. At a time in our history when religious films like The Passion and attempts to outlaw gay marriage (at least partially for religious reasons) have been so influential in dividing the United States, both skeptics and believers have a vested interest in discussing the ways in which the politics of religion impacts our lives -- even in films that we consider ourselves too old to appreciate.

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