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MOVIE REVIEW

Fine cast is the soul of 'Saved'

A teen comedy set at a high school for born-again Christians, "Saved!" has the glitteringly satiric dialogue of "Election" -- and the soul of an after-school special. There will be moviegoers who may be shocked by the film's breezy impiety. There will be others disappointed that it doesn't go nearly far enough.

Its heart is in the right place: with its smart, troubled adolescent characters as they slalom through an obstacle course of faith, doubt, rebellion, and hormones. And if "Saved!" sinks into formula -- any movie with a showdown at a prom is treading a well-worn path -- you're grateful for its forgiving spirit.

But you may be even more grateful for the early scenes' tartly sardonic portrait of young evangelicals like Mary (Jena Malone), whose future initially seems bright "even if we're living in the end times." A member of the Christian Jewels clique at American Eagle High, Mary's faith is sorely tested when her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) confesses that he's gay and, in trying to prove otherwise, she winds up pregnant.

Shy to begin with, she's soon an invisible girl in increasingly lumpy clothing; her chipper Christian single mother (Mary-Louise Parker) chalks up the weight gain to stress eating. Anyway, Mom's too busy having a discreet affair with Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), American Eagle's hip young principal and a prelate given to painfully sincere hip-hop-spiced dogma ("Lord Jesus is in da house!").

Once director Brian Dannelly and his co-writer, Michael Urban, pack Dean off to a local de-gayification program, "Saved!" surrounds Mary with a gallery of genially confused misfits, each praying to be delivered from the humiliations of youth. Pastor Skip's son, Patrick (Patrick Fugit of "Almost Famous"), is a skateboarding hunk with issues of his own, while Mary's friend Roland (Macaulay Culkin), who uses a wheelchair because of a childhood accident, is biding time until he can blow off the martyr routine.

He finds his chance with the arrival of Cassandra Edelstein (Eva Amurri), a ruthlessly agnostic Jewish riot grrrl who's been booted out of every other school in the district and who takes great delight in preying on the nerves of her earnest new classmates. "Secondhand smoke kills," someone admonishes the new girl as she drags on a cigarette. "I'm counting on it," she replies.

In the opposite corner is Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), Roland's sister, the leader of the Christian Jewels, and the kind of divinely perfect pain in the neck who can angrily shriek "I'm filled with Christian love!" while aiming a Bible at a friend's head. We first see Hilary Faye at a target-practice range, where she tells Mary that she's saving herself for marriage, "and I'll use force if necessary." Her Achilles' heel is that she believes she can convert Cassandra to Christianity. This only gives the latter something to work with.

"Saved!" distinguishes between the faith that springs from within and doctrine that can be imposed, ruinously, from without; its characters struggle to value the people they love over the unapproachable 25-foot Jesus that looms over the school parking lot. That's a worthy dilemma, and if director Dannelly had been able to present it without resorting to the cliches of a 1986 John Hughes movie, the movie's bite might match its bark.

You come out savoring the brittle humor of the best lines, thinking that Culkin might have an adult career after all, and wanting to see more of Eva Amurri, whose liquid eyes narrow with ill-considered possibilities throughout. The save in "Saved!" goes to her.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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