Film Review – Blue Like Jazz
Loosely based on the book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, directed by Steve Taylor, tells the story of a fictional Donald Miller (Marshall Allman), a good Texan Southern Baptist boy about to leave home for a writing program at a nearby religious college. While preparing to leave town, he stops by to see his father—a liberal, jazz-listening, morning-beer-drinking professor type—who informs Donald that he has enrolled him in Reed College in Portland, Oregon. (Referred to in the film as “the most Godless campus in America.”) Dad would like to see his son escape from the religious brainwashing he believes Donald has undergone. Son has no intention of expanding his mind in the Pacific Northwest—until he makes the rather distasteful discovery that his mother is having an affair with the somewhat racially clueless and sexist youth pastor at their church. His anger is targeted at his mother, but also at the hypocrisy of his church leaders. In a fit of rage, he takes off for Portland to explore a more secular existence.
Donald makes his first friend at college, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), whom he meets in a unisex bathroom. She tells him that he needs to keep his Christian background hidden or he is going to face persecution from the other students. (For the record, Reed does have a Christian student group on campus called “Oh For Christ’s Sake.” Their tagline is “Come for the brownies, stay for the Jesus!”) Not only does Donald hide his religious upbringing, but he completely denies any Christian leanings and rushes to embrace all the weirdness that Reed has to offer. And beer. In trying to gain the friendship of the campus “Pope” (Justin Welborn)—a position passed down from one Pope to another ever year during the bacchanalian Renn Fayre—Donald engages in the over-appreciation of alcohol and other substances. The Pope is trying to free people from the damage that religion has done to them, and Donald becomes his side-kick on that “holy” mission.
While Donald struggles to define himself away from home, he also meets and develops a crush on Penny (Claire Holt), a fellow student with a more serious bent. She is studious and thoughtful, spending her vacation in Kashmir doing good works and her time at school working to increase awareness about the stupidity of bottled water, among other societal causes. She’s not a prig, however, and is friends with a lot of people who do not share her worldview, including Donald. It is his relationships with Penny and The Pope that help him figure out how to best live a life in a world where people do not always live up to their intentions.
There are some real problems with this movie. A large part of it takes place in Portland, and a great deal of the film’s humor is based on the premise that Portland is the weirdest place on Earth. Yes, Portland is weird. Yes, students at Reed like to let their freak flag fly. But, Portland is not a constant parade of bear-suit-wearing, tall-bike-riding, Christian-hating, condom-giving, Pope-suit-wearing lunatics. The writers and director of this film chose to use stereotypes to get their point across, and it doesn’t work in their favor when helping to create a believable world. Donald, Penny, and The Pope are more fleshed out, but they still lack some of the roundness required to make them more three-dimensional. Penny is too good, The Pope is constantly angry, and Donald’s actions are often way out of proportion to whatever he is responding to. Persecution and denial of faith are important themes in Christian stories, but I wish more time had been spent on making those situations believable. Using shorthand with stereotypes to indicate that his fellow churchgoers were hypocrites or that Reed is a hotbed of religious persecution is not the same as creating situations and responses that resonate with truth.
Even though this movie doesn’t always work, it is surprisingly enjoyable. My issue with a lot of Christian films is that the message is often more important than the form. I have no problem with message films—there are a lot of them out there—but I want my meaning passed on through entertainment or art; I want to struggle for ideas presented in subtext and not have everything spelled out for me in the text. Watching a movie ought to be a different experience than watching a sermon, and Blue Like Jazz tries to be a proper film with complicated ideas. Where it fails, it does so with the best of intentions.
Donald is trying to discover how to live a life that best exemplifies Christ’s teachings while inhabiting a real world where people swear, have pre-marital sex—sometimes with people of the same gender—take drugs, and ride really oddly-sized bikes. There has been some pushback from the Christian film industry because this is not a family-friendly film: it deals with things that a young adult might reasonably see on a (not just secular) college campus. I think there might also be some controversy because the film does not judge those who engage in said activities, but focuses more on how to live a Christian life by being able to give and receive forgiveness. It’s clunky and could have used a few more script re-writes, but it’s good-hearted and tries to deal with meaningful issues without being didactic. Its appeal goes beyond what one would consider the traditional Christian film market, and I hope it is successful enough that other films like it get made. I am not a Christian myself, but I enjoy watching movies that deal with ideas, and even though this one has some quality issues, it is worth seeing.
Final Grade: C+