Hey there, Internets! Time for the next in the series of Teen Comedy Movie Thinky Thoughts.
Bring It On
This one got super long. My fingers are neglecting to fing. Also, my friend Roz Kaveney kindly gave me a copy of her very good book Teen Dreams: From ‘Heathers’ to ‘Veronica Mars’, which is full of awesome analysis, much of which I shall be using for this series.
Teen Comedy With A Serious Message Number Two: Saved!
Born-again Christian Mary’s life was going pretty great – she’s a member of the Christian Jewels (“A girl gang for Jesus”), she has a great Christian boyfriend, and she’s about to be a senior at a good Christian school, for which she’s just helped paint a giant Jesus billboard.
Then her boyfriend reveals that he thinks he’s gay in the swimming pool. Mary hits her head, and, while being rescued from drowning by the handyman, receives a vision of Jesus: “Dean needs you now. You must do all you can to help him,” he says.
Mary interprets this as helping Dean embrace heterosexuality by make outs, boob-fondling, and, eventually, having made a deal with Jesus to restore her spiritual and physical virginity, sexual intercourse. Dean’s parents find evidence of their son’s sexuality and send him to gay rehab, and Mary discovers she’s pregnant. When Mary refuses to join a prayer circle praying for Dean to be redeemed from “faggotry”, she is ostracised by her best friend, Christian Jewel leader and Mean Girl Hillary Faye, but earns the admiration of the new boy, hot skateboarder Patrick.
Wild child Cassandra (“the only Jewish to ever attend American Eagle”) and Hillary Faye’s brother Roland support Mary through the secret pregnancy, and Hillary Faye starts trying to get both girls expelled. The situation escalates through the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, the expulsion of Mary and Cassandra, and culminates in a prom showdown, where Hillary Faye’s machinations are revealed, Dean and his friends from Mercy House crash the party, and Mary goes into labour.
The movie ends with Mary surrounded by family and friends, who love her – once again, her life is going pretty great.
Also it is a movie with a lot of Diet Coke product placement, which I find comforting. *slurp*
The tyrannous myth of perfection is incredibly bad for you.
Well, actually, the overt message is that faith is fine, but prejudice is horrible. Love Jesus, but also love your family and friends and fellow humans. However, the root of this prejudice is cultural fear and exclusion of anyone who fails to be “right with Christ”, perfect in body and soul, despite the fact that perfection is an unattainable standard for anybody, and particularly difficult by the standards of this born-again Christian community.
In the climax, Mary delineates the problem:
Mary: “So everything that doesn’t fit into some stupid idea of what you think God wants you just try to hide or fix or get rid of? It’s just all too much to live up to. No one fits in one hundred percent of the time. Not even you.”
Pastor Skip: “I know that, Mary.”
Dean: “I know in my heart that Jesus still loves me.”
Mary: “Why would God make us all so different if he wanted us to be the same?”
But at the start of the movie, kids who are not perfect are sent away to Mercy House, to “fix” problems like drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and homosexuality. (Oh wait. One of these things is not like the others!) Even the good kids at American Eagle are invited to come down and rededicate themselves to God at the start of the school year – they may have “backslid” over summer, so they must be perfected now.
Perfection, in this community, is white*, straight, able-bodied, “Jesuscentric”, conventionally attractive, and, preferably, blonde. In fact, would-be Christian Jewel Tia dyes her “bad hair” later as an effort to come closer to this ideal, which is most obviously embodied in Hillary Faye.
Hillary Faye is genuinely talented – she is a skilled vocalist, and an excellent organiser, who can put together a billboard for the school, plan the school prom, and even get an admired Christian band to play at it – but this clearly wasn’t enough for her parents, who “didn’t want to have two handicapped kids.” Hillary Faye was the “easy fix” – with fat camp, antibiotics, and some kind of torturous orthodontic device visible in photos of her former physicality.
Matching her performative physical perfection is her constant striving to be the most performatively Christian girl in school – not in loving her neighbours and turning the other cheek, but in being the most condemnatory of sin. It is not enough for Hillary Faye to love Jesus – she has to be seen loving him and obeying his will, and doing so better than anyone else. Expelling Mary from her group isn’t a result of Mary’s pregnancy, of which Hillary Faye knows nothing, but because Mary refuses to fall in line and condemn Dean’s homosexuality, the way Hillary Faye’s conception of a perfect Christian would.
Later, naively encouraged by Pastor Skip to be a “warrior for Christ”, Hillary Faye attempts an exorcism. When Mary stomps away, Hillary instructs her to “turn away from Satan! Jesus, he loves you.” Mary responds by saying that Hillary Faye doesn’t “know the first thing about love,” which strikes at the heart of her insecurities. Hurling her Bible at the back of Mary’s head, she howls, “I am FILLED with Christ’s love! You are just jealous of my success in the Lord.” Mary hand back the Bible, snapping, “This is not a weapon, you idiot.”
But Hillary Faye doesn’t get the message. She escalates her campaign against Cassandra and Mary, attempting to get Cassandra expelled by recording her using profanity in school. When Cassandra and Roland respond with showing her classmatesl the damning pictures of her formerly non-perfect physical form, Hillary Faye insists on Cassandra and Mary’s expulsion, claiming that “I’m trying to be a good Christian, and I’m trying to be a living example of Christ’s love” – a significant step down from her former certain declaration that she IS filled with Christ’s love. Hillary Faye is losing her grip on perfection.
Pastor Skip refuses to expel the pair, but that “those who did this will not escape the eyes of God” is not enough for Hillary Faye. As her physical appearance must reflect her inner purity, so must worldly punishment must echo divine justice.
The next day, students arrive to discover hateful, blasphemous graffiti spraypainted all over the school. Legends reading “GOD = dog!”, “God sucks”, “God suck my ass”, “Only assholes pray” and an upside down crucifix are all apparent in the long scene that establishes not only the genuine shock of Cassandra, Mary and Roland, but of many speechless, horrified extras. Mary and Cassandra get the blame and are expelled, and Mary’s pregnancy is discovered at last. (There’s a very nice moment when the female teacher who finds the ultrasound in Mary’s locker attempts to conceal it from Pastor Skip – mercy in action.)
“You have so much, Hillary Faye,” Roland says, looking up at his sister, who is literally elevated in her triumph. “What are you afraid of?”
Hillary Faye is afraid that she won’t be, can’t be perfect, when her entire world has stressed that she must be in order to earn love – her parents’ love, her friends’ love, Jesus’ love. The graffiti on the walls isn’t just what she thinks anti-Christian vandals would write; it reveals her own rage at the system that keeps her trapped in this role of unattainable perfection. And the cracks in the facade of Hillary Faye’s spiritual perfection are reflected in her physicality – as she readies herself for prom, a pimple begins to sprout on her otherwise unblemished face.
When all is revealed at the prom, Hillary Faye shouts that she only “did this” – lied, vandalised, bore false witness – because Jesus told her to. (And, just like Mary, she’s not lying. Before Hillary Faye takes that drastic step, we see her frantically praying, in a series of overlapping cuts that indicate time is passing as she mumbles her pleas: “They need to know that what they did is wrong. Help me. Oh God please, just tell me what I need to do.”) And yet, Jesus has let her down.
It’s the last straw. “Save the heathens, Hillary Faye,” she mutters as she speeds her van towards th e Jesus billboard. “Be a warrior, Hillary Faye. Sacrifice everything, Hillary Faye! And here’s your BIG, FAT, STUPID REWARD!” She swerves at the last second, but she still hits the sign, and Jesus’ head falls off and stars at her through the windscreen.
When she stumbles out, Roland again provides the crucial question: this time, it’s, “Are you okay?” And for the first time, Hillary Faye admits that she isn’t perfect: “No, Roland. I crashed my van into Jesus! I have a pimple the size of Jupiter! I AM NOT OKAY. This is not how I wanted to remember my prom! This is not how I wanted to remember my life.”
The siblings apologise to each other for their various cruelties, and Hillary Faye finally asks a question of her own: “Do you think Jesus still loves me, Roland?” Is she worthy of Jesus’ love, now that her lack of perfection has been so totally revealed to her world? “Probably not,” Roland responds, with automatic sarcasm, and then, seeing his sister is in real pain, he says, “Yeah. Sure.” Cassandra helps her limp to medical help, and, as Roz Kaveney puts it in Teen Dreams: “our last sight of Hillary Faye is of someone who may have learned better, for whom there is hope past humiliation.”
Even the good guys in the movie – and there are a lot of them – are depicted as very far from perfect.
Mary is nicer than Hillary Faye, but she is still capable of exclusionary and discriminatory groupthink, happily picketing Planned Parenthood and cheering when the shouting scares a pregnant woman away. Her efforts to “fix” Dean come from a much kinder place than Hillary’s Faye’s prayer circle, but she still, like the other Jewels, assumes he’s “afflicted” until much later in the piece, when she’s finally able to accept and love him for who he is. Roland and Cassandra form a loving couple, but Cassandra is a genuinely troubled girl who is drunk and obnoxious in a mall food court, and her and Roland’s revenge on Hillary Faye is at least as cruel as any of Hillary Faye’s actions to that date. The self-tormenting Pastor Skip means well, but he cannot encompass more than a narrow vision of God, and is greatly pained by his own inability to be perfect.
The movie’s best example of a true good guy is his son, Christian skateboarder Patrick, who insists that, rather than his father’s “black and white” view of Christianity, “It’s all a grey area”. “I want you to know that I don’t think Dean’s sick or anything,” he tells Mary, and later, “God gave us all free will, and that day at Hillary Faye’s prayer circle, you weren’t afraid to use it. You inspired me. You’re amazing, Mary.” It is significant, I think, that Patrick is present in the scene where the pictures humiliate Hillary Faye, but off to one side, clearly disapproving. He is, if anything, too tolerant of intolerance, but it’s clear that he loves his imperfect, stumbling father, his pregnant girlfriend, and his God.
Interestingly enough, though the characters constantly refer to God and Jesus, and assert the will of Christ, they do absolutely no Biblical exegesis. When Pastor Skip says that he’s been studying, he doesn’t mention what readings have informed that study. When he sternly tells miscreants that, “What you and your friends have done is not cool in the eyes of God,” he doesn’t say why, and when he tells his son “The Bible is black and white!” he doesn’t quote chapter and verse.
There is a lot made of Jesus’ love, but not much at all about Jesus’ words or actions. This is a man who made a direct analogue between loving one’s neighbour and loving one’s God, and instructed that only those without sin may cast stones at sinners, and yet, it’s not until the very last lines of the movie that Mary, holding her new daughter in her hospital room, asks that guiding Christian question: “I mean, when you think about it, what would Jesus do? I don’t know. But in the meantime, we’ll be trying to figure it out. Together.”
This “together” doesn’t include Hillary Faye – and neither does it include Pastor Skip, who is seen walking back in forth in the parking lot with a bouquet of flowers, arguing with himself. Instead, Mary and her newborn are surrounded by her mother, her friends, her boyfriend, her ex-boyfriend, and his boyfriend. Nobody in that room is perfect, and they’re fine with that.
– Macaulay Culkin does wonderful work with this portrayal of a wheelchair user who doesn’t want to be an angelic victim of terrible circumstance. Instead, he’s a sly, sardonic non-believer, with a hotass girlfriend who doesn’t give a shit that he can’t walk. But Hollywood, for God’s sake, actors with disabilities actually do exist, you know?
– Veronica is the only non-white main character, and this is pointed up by the fact that her parents “saved her” from the “savage, godless nation” of Vietnam, while they were on mission. Her parents are a (non-speaking) African American couple – this may have been a way of trying to avoiding the issue of white parents “saving” babies of colour. Given how thoroughly whitebread the rest of the cast are and the rest of the ground the movie tackles, I think this is a misstep.
– The movie really walks the line of equating ugly with morally inferior, and crosses it when Roland says “Once her outside matched her inside” of his sister. Not cool, movie. Not cool.
– Constant use of “retarded” as an insult bugs me, even when it’s from people depicted as unpleasant.
What have I missed, Internets? What have I got wrong? Let’s talk teen movies!
* During the painting of the Jesus billboard:
Roland: I still don’t think he’s supposed to be white. I was watching this thing on television…
Hillary: Of COURSE he’s white. God, sometimes I think my brother’s retarded.