PARK CITY, Utah — Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin are confused. The question puzzling the singer/actress and "Home Alone" star isn't whether or not "Saved!" will seem controversial to their core audiences — because it certainly will — but rather who their core audiences are.
"What's your audience, Mac?" Moore asked Culkin the afternoon after "Saved!" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The pair shivered in the cold beside a kiosk plastered with posters for movies vying for attention.
"Uh, gay, lesbian and, um, 80-year-old women," Culkin concluded. "What's yours?"
"My audience is ... God, I don't even know. Teenage girls and, uh, teenage guys, or something," she stammered.
Who knows if Moore — especially after the box-office failures "Chasing Liberty" and "How to Deal" (see "Mandy Moore Knows 'How To Deal' When A Movie Bombs"), and the straight-to-cable "All I Want" — even has an audience?
Yet her turn as the conniving and comical Hilary Faye in "Saved!," an iconoclastic and potentially controversial take on a group of ultrazealous parochial-school teens, could be exactly the kind of sharply written material she needs to reclaim the momentum "A Walk to Remember" gave her.
"Saved!" concerns a Christian schoolgirl, played by Jena Malone ("Life as a House"), who questions her faith when her boyfriend comes out of the closet and she becomes pregnant in a last-ditch effort to "save" him. Moore plays her high-strung, highly moral friend. Culkin plays Mandy's cynical handicapped brother, while Patrick Fugit ("Almost Famous") turns in a charming performance as Malone's love interest.
The flick's laughs result mainly from the complications caused by its characters' rigidly held beliefs. There's also the school's slick, hip-hop spouting pastor ("God is in the house, yo!") and the blurry line dividing secular rock and evangelical Christian music.
Many potentially offensive scenes feel like heightened-for-laughs reality. But while researching their roles, the film's cast discovered there are lots of kids exactly like the ones they play in "Saved!"
"I grew up in Salt Lake City, which has a lot of Mormons, but it's not the same [as the movie] at all," Fugit explained. "When I read the script, with Pastor Skip using all of those Ebonics, everyone waving their hands and Hilary Faye always like, 'Praise Jesus,' I was like, 'This is way over the top!' Then we went to a youth rally and learned that the movie actually downplays it," he said.
"I got saved three different times just to see what it was like," Malone added.
"It was amazing to see people our age and younger so consumed. [Evangelism] was such a huge part of who they are," Moore said. "I was really unfamiliar with it," Moore explained.
One of the biggest laughs at the Sundance premiere came when Hilary Faye, leading a group of screaming protesters, badgers a pregnant girl into turning away from an abortion clinic. In another scene, she organizes a prayer meeting to "save" the boyfriend from being gay.
Beyond its humor, though, "Saved!" delivers a message about tolerance and understanding.
"That whole world's not my cup of tea, but I definitely give it its proper respect," Culkin said of the Christians depicted.
At the same time, the movie's moralizing about tolerance isn't too blatant or preachy itself. "When I first read the script, I thought it was just a teeny-bopper thing," Fugit said. "But then I re-read it more carefully and decided it's more earnest than I'd thought."
"It's important to question what you believe — religiously, with the government, everything — when you're young," Malone concluded. "You need a lot of strength but you come out better from doing it."
Filmed over 28 days during fall 2002 in Vancouver, British Columbia, "Saved!" will finally be released nationwide next month, via MGM. The movie was produced by Single Cell Pictures, the company co-founded by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe.
Brian Dannelly, who also co-wrote the screenplay, makes his feature-film directorial debut. "The situational humor is wonderful and I enjoyed the sort of truth the script brought," Malone said.