In 1985, “Heaven Help Us” satirized the peculiar rigidity of growing up as a student at an all-boys Catholic high school.
Nearly 20 years later, it’s apparently okay to make fun of hardcore Christians, too, which “Saved!” does with shrewd observations and savage wit.
The movie is so darkly funny and subversive, with a strong, young cast and great eye for detail, it’s almost a Christian version of “Heathers,” the 1989 high school satire starring Winona Ryder and a then-unknown Christian Slater.
But then, in the final 20 minutes, “Saved!” director and co-writer Brian Dannelly abruptly turns around and embraces the very conventions he’d been so cleverly skewering.
It’s almost as if Dannelly was afraid of infuriating or alienating too many people, so he went with the big-hearted ending, which he administers with a heavy hand.
Until then, though, “Saved!” depicts the hilariously surreal universe of American Eagle Christian High School, where mean-girl Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) is the leader of an elite group called the Christian Jewels and has a personalized license plate that reads “JC Girl.”
One of her minions, the innocent Mary (Jena Malone), suspects her figure-skater boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), might be gay.
The very prospect of homosexuality disgusts Mary’s closed-minded classmates — “What if you had married him?” one asks. “The gayness would be passed on to your children!” — but after receiving a vision from Jesus, Mary realizes she must do whatever it takes to, um, straighten him out, and ends up pregnant.
As word spreads throughout her judgmental, insular world, she finds out who her true friends are: the outcasts, including Hilary Faye’s brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin), who’s in a wheelchair; Cassandra (Eva Amurri), a chain-smoking rebel and the school’s only Jewish student; and skateboarder Patrick (Patrick Fugit from “Almost Famous”), who wants to be more than just friends, even though she’s with child.
Mary’s mother (Mary-Louise Parker) isn’t much help, either. When she isn’t obsessing over her figure, she’s flirting with too-hip Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), who gets the American Eagle students psyched up at pep rallies by asking, “Who’s down with G.O.D.?” and urging, “Let’s get our Christ on!”
Laughing though all these funny moments makes the sappy, happy ending even more of a disappointment.
But “Saved!” should save Moore, who finally finds the best fit for her combination of sweetness and queen-bee confidence after starring in a string of movies (“A Walk to Remember,” “Chasing Liberty”) that failed to make the most of her abilities. She can hurl a Bible at Mary’s back, scream “I am filled with Christ’s love!” and still make Hilary Faye a watchable character.
Some actresses pray for that kind of talent and never achieve it.