Jeff Jensen
June 18, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

October 2002. On the set of ”Saved!,” cowriter-director Brian Dannelly nervously eyes the 30-foot-tall wooden cutout of Jesus looming above him. Later tonight, here in the parking lot of a Vancouver high school, a car will smash into this Jesus, cutting him in two. It’s the climax of Dannelly’s feature-film debut, a wicked satire set within a Christian high school, starring Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, and Macaulay Culkin. For a $5 million production like ”Saved!,” this car crash passes for a big stunt. But for a rookie filmmaker like Dannelly, it’s ALL nerve-rackingly big.

Still, there is one thing he ISN’T sweating at the moment: controversy. Which is surprising, since in ”Saved!,” the potential for sacrilege is almighty high. Malone is Mary, a Bible-abiding girl who is instructed by a dubious vision of Christ to have sex with her boyfriend in order to ”cure” him of his homosexuality.

She succeeds only in getting pregnant and acquiring a crisis of faith that costs her the friendship of proud super-Christian Hilary Faye (Moore). When their interpersonal conflict escalates, Mary finds unlikely allies in the school’s naughty bad seed (”The Banger Sisters”’ Eva Amurri) and Hilary’s angry-at-God brother (Culkin). Yet as incendiary as the plot sounds, Dannelly — who says he connects most personally to the coming-out journey of Mary’s gay boyfriend Dean — dares to believe his themes of grace and tolerance are…well, Christian. ”It’s not like I’m going to go buy a Kevlar vest,” he quips.

June 2004. In the first week of ”Saved!”’s release, Dannelly has debated an angry Jerry Falwell on CNN and seen his film denounced as a ”bigoted, frontal attack on Christians” by prominent media watchdog Ted Baehr. This, despite critics who have praised ”Saved!” for walking a fine line between skewering ugly fundamentalism and respecting the faith behind it. Dannelly says he hasn’t added Kevlar to his wardrobe, ”but I did get a new, unlisted phone number.” He also has a hot new Hollywood career. In its first weekend of limited release, ”Saved!” scored an impressive $23,000 per-screen average. The promising launch has given MGM/United Artists enough faith to add 500 more theaters this week and has given Dannelly some industry juice. ”He’s a major new talent,” says MGM vice chairman and COO Chris McGurk. ”I hope I can live in his guesthouse someday, if he’ll have me.”

Pretty auspicious for a movie that began life as homework. Dannelly, 40, says ”Saved!” was inspired by a graduation requirement from the American Film Institute: write a screenplay. It was the late ’90s, and Dannelly had been reading about how the Columbine tragedy had inspired teenagers to embrace religion, which stirred memories of the two years he’d spent at a Baptist high school in Baltimore. (Bad experience? ”No, not at all.”) Working with AFI classmate Michael Urban, the director wrote a script that sought to explore just how much the Christian youth subculture had changed. ”The idea was to take a John Hughes sort of movie and put things into it you’d never seen before,” says Dannelly, who doesn’t consider himself an adherent of any one faith. ”I also went to Catholic elementary school and a Jewish summer camp,” says the filmmaker, who was kicked out of the former for hitting a nun, and signed up for the latter while under the influence of ”Meatballs” and ”Friday the 13th.” ”There’s a line in the movie: ‘They can’t all be right, but they can’t all be wrong.’ That’s sort of my attitude.” Dannelly — whose AFI thesis film ”He Bop!” was a gay coming-of-age tale, set against the backdrop of the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan — reluctantly admits personal politics may also have shaped his vision. ”I think all films are political. Consciously or subconsciously, it finds its way into the story you’re telling. I think ‘Shrek’ is as political as ‘Saved!”’

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