Films about faith usually kick up dust. Just look at “The Passion of the Christ.” And look a bit further to “Saved!” which opens today.

“Saved!” tells the story of a group of teenagers at American Eagle Christian High School. When Mary (Jena Malone) discovers her boyfriend is gay, she believes Jesus tells her to sleep with him in order to make him heterosexual. Problems ensue, some of them caused by Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), the school’s “good girl.”

The movie, directed by Brian Dannelly and co-written by Dannelly and Michael Urban, is becoming a flashpoint for Christianity’s image in the culture at large.

Some critics see the movie as blatantly offensive, whereas others find it a light-hearted look at a fascinating world—and one known all too well by the filmmakers.

Dannelly attended a Catholic elementary school, a Jewish summer camp, and a Baptist high school. Urban grew up in a Southern Baptist family.

Though both Dannelly and Urban see the film as a pro-faith project, others disagree.

An Assist News Service story quoted Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian Film & Television Commission, as saying “Saved!” is “a hateful, politically correct movie.”

“It is being heavily marketed to the community it mocks to lead Christian youth astray and make them resent their own faith,” Baehr said in the article.

Baehr argued that the movie’s villain, played by Mandy Moore, is actually espousing true Christian values, whereas the movie’s hero, played by Eva Amurri, is a Jewish girl who points out how misguided the powers-that-be actually are.

Baehr said if roles were reversed—if the school were Jewish or Islamic and the hero a Christian—that the media would be outraged. Baehr concluded that MGM’s marketing strategy is trying to get children to divorce their faith.

“This is abhorrent and people of faith and faith must be forewarned,” Baehr said.

Dannelly said in a Christianity Today interview that MGM held screenings for various religious groups, including fundamentalists, Buddhists and Catholics.

And what were the reactions?

“The Fundamentalists are always the tricky ones,” Dannelly said in the interview. “To me, a lot of the movie is about missing the message. Some are saying that Jesus tells Mary [Jena Malone] to have sex with her gay boyfriend, but it doesn’t say that in the film. Jesus says, ‘Dean needs you now. You must do everything you can to help him.’ They’re two very different takes on the film.”

And it’s not just fundamentalists who are saying that. Even the introduction to a New York Times interview with Dannelly and Urban describes the film thusly: “Set at a Christian high school, it stars Jena Malone as the born-again Mary, a 17-year-old who becomes pregnant after Jesus appears to her in a swimming pool and instructs her to have sex with her gay boyfriend.”

But Dannelly, the director, is correct regarding who said what in the film. And perhaps part of the point is that people sometimes hear what they want to hear, or they simply misunderstand the divine.

And they may misunderstand the movie, as well. A May 6 New York Times article said MGM executives were having difficulty figuring out how to sell the movie. They wanted to capitalize on the success of “The Passion of the Christ,” and even came up with the tagline, “Got Passion? Get Saved!”

But this film is a different beast.

The movie’s Web site, which will offend some Christians while humoring others, offers a “Christian Guide,” which is really just two paragraphs. Its point is to lessen the brunt of what marketers know is potentially hurtful.

“There’s a constant tension between what’s ‘acceptable’ to talk about in church and what teens truly confront in their daily lives,” the guide says, saying the youth minister’s job becomes especially important for teens today.

“‘Saved!’ bridges that chasm by presenting authentic Christian teens who make poor choices, have a crisis of faith, seek answers, and ultimately emerge with a genuine faith made strong through the fire of life,” it continues. “This movie will also make people uncomfortable or possibly offend. It’s messy, portraying life with all its warts and confusion. It addresses dozens of issues teens grapple with today and will launch them easily into significant spiritual discussions. This is definitely the film for generating conversation with the young people.”

That sort of tailor-made message is the very thing that so outraged Baehr. But others see it differently.

The movie’s capsule review at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered, calls it “a gleeful, nondenominational, politically incorrect comedy for anyone who’s been to Bible camp.” It also describes the film as “a teasing take on the passionate moral convictions of adolescence.”

“Saved!” also won the Audience Favorite Award at the Nashville Film Festival, where it played to a packed house that howled with laughter.

Some of the biggest laughs were generated by the performance of Martin Donovan as Pastor Skip, the head of the school who stokes assemblies with some heavenly hip-hop like, “Who’s down with G-O-D?” and “Let’s get our Christ on!”

Ultimately, screenwriter Urban said the movie is “about how having a crisis of faith is really the only way to affirm one’s faith,” according to the Times interview.

He also said, “I think it’s a pretty loving film. And that it does take some doing to see it as anything else.”

And when Christianity Today asked Dannelly about his take on the movie, he responded:

“My take is, honestly, Jesus loves you. You make mistakes. I think the point is to get through those mistakes. There’s something shocking or scandalous about every character in the movie, and the thing is for you as an audience to ask, where do they go from here?”

“I’m just glad I made the movie,” he said, “and I’m glad that people are all talking about it.”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

“Saved!” is rated PG-13 for “strong thematic issues involving teens—sexual content, pregnancy, smoking and language.”

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