WWJFD: What would Jerry Falwell do?

“Saved!”United Artists Written and Directed by Brian DannellyStarring Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin.Rated PG-13.4 out of 5 Stars

Young Life would think this is all wrong. Jerry Falwell would think this is all I wrong. I thought it might be all wrong, or at least seem that way to some viewers.

In Brian Dannelly’s writing and directorial debut, “Saved!” lots of things could have gone wrong. A film about the exploitation of religion to teens could come off as a diatribe against the institution of religion; it could have been preachy, overly satirical and underwhelming. It could have relied on the names of Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin to bring “the kids” into theaters.

Like much of its potentially blasphemous material, to get this film to the screen, the concept alone requires a little faith-a giggler on Bible School fundamentalism is never easy to sell, especially in these “Passion”ate times.

Luckily, Dannelly manages to pull a fly-by on his fair share of could-ofs-there are plenty of prayers “Saved!” manages to answer.

Jena Malone heads the cast as Mary, proud member of her (very) Christian school’s most popular clique/Christian rock group, the Christian Jewels. When Mary discovers that her boyfriend is gay, she decides to save him…by getting herself pregnant.

Religion-chic it-girl and leader of the pack, Hillary Faye (Moore), finds out about the unexpected bun in Mary’s oven and ousts her from the group, leaving her to take refuge with Hillary Faye’s crippled brother, Roland (Culkin), and school deviant/only Jewish girl, Cassandra (Eva Amurri), both of whom Hillary Faye is trying to “save.”

At times, “Saved!” shows a first-time director/writer slightly overwhelmed with his debut. Sometimes the dialogue gets choppy and the actors try their best to do what they can with it. The film touts a somewhat sentimental, overly idealistic ending, and some facets of high school are taken much lighter than we all know they should be.

Despite its problems, though, “Saved!” delivers salvation to those looking for something new in the teen genre, as well as a few outsiders as well. Dannelly’s commentaries and satire are sharp, bypassing an all-out attack on faith and instead (no pun intended) praises it, while offering shots at Mod-Christianity’s hypocrisies, pop exploitation and suburbanite takeovers. Even better, it pretty much nails every one. Sometimes “Saved!” comes on too hard, too swift, too directly over your head, but it is justified in doing so because Dannelly’s target (religious fundamentalism) often does the same. If anything could be more overstated and brought out, though, it is Dannelly’s direction-his shot composition isn’t that of a typical teen flick, taking a certain artisanship throughout and framing characters beautifully.

More than anything, though, “Saved!” relies on the power of its young cast to make its message more than just digestible, and Moore, Malone and Mac serve it up just right: funny as hell. Moore’s portrayal of Hillary Faye is worthy of recognition, as she captures teen-queen-bitch gone God without missing a step. Culkin makes a worthy return (and we’re not counting “Party Monster”) as the deviant, delinquent, wheelchair-bound Roland.

Finally, Malone makes her character’s transitions and issues with faith rather believable, showing depth the teen genre has been missing since John Hughes sent five kids to morning detention. With a great supporting cast behind them as well (“Almost Famous'” Patrick Fugit, “Welcome To The Dollhouse’s” Heather Matarazzo and rookie Eva Amurri all shine), “Saved!” often quickly recovers from tripping over weighty, underlying themes to come around as one of the most funny, solid and unique teen flicks in years.

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