Blue Like Jazz Leaves Questions Unaddressed
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2012 13 Apr
DVD Release Date: August 7, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: April 13, 2012 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexuality, drug and alcohol content, and some language)
Run Time: 106 min.
Director: Steve Taylor
Cast: Marshall Allman, Justin Welborn, Jason Marsden, Claire Holt, Tania Raymonde, Eric Lange, Matt Godfrey, Jeff Obafemi Carr
Are you a disaffected Evangelical? Are you questioning the faith of your childhood, wandering in the wilderness, struggling to figure out who God is and whether or not the Bible is reliable? Then Blue Like Jazz, based on Donald Miller’s best-selling 2003 book of the same name (though with the added descriptor “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality”), is the story for you.
If, on the other hand, you feel confident about your faith and are more at peace than restless about spiritual things, Miller’s story might strike you as an unsurprising entry among the burgeoning number of tales told by Christians who are critical of the church.
Why is Don (Marshall Allman) upset? At age 19, he’s active in his Southern Baptist congregation. If only the adults in his life were as upstanding as he is. Don’s deadbeat dad, who lives in a trailer and has a reputation as a free spirit, encourages Don to break out of his Christian ghetto and attend the liberal-arts focused Reed College rather than a religious school. Don, greatly disillusioned upon learning that his mom has been fooling around with the church’s youth pastor, somewhat reluctantly agrees.
Upon arriving at college, Don encounters women using the urinals in the men’s room, a student who dresses like the Pope (Justin Welborn) while handing out condoms, and open expressions of lesbian lust by a new acquaintance (Tania Raymonde) who has no patience with Christian morality. “Get in the closet, Baptist boy,” she tells him.
Soon Don “just want(s) to fit in,” so he starts getting drunk and distancing himself from the faith in which he’s been brought up.His friend Penny (Claire Holt) shows Don that following Christ isn’t something of which he should be ashamed.
It’s not that Miller’s story, as adapted for the screen by the author, Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson (the latter two teamed on the script for Taylor’s 2009 directorial debut The Second Chance), isn’t worth telling. Distributor Roadside Attractions, the company behind the release of Winter’s Bone, Bella and Goodbye Solo, saw something in Taylor’s film that it thought would connect with audiences. Perhaps the movie, like the book, will tap into a spiritual restlessness in today’s society.
But does Miller’s story provide answers for those who are searching? That’s debatable. Although the film has Miller confessing that he’s misrepresented Jesus, and shows him grieving over that realization, the script is less than clear on why it’s important to follow Jesus. What is it about Christ that demands that allegiance? The movie depicts Christ as an object of love, Someone who inspires charity. All true, and worth noting. But the movie stops there, leaving viewers to wonder if the extent of following Jesus boils down to the type of missions work Penny does overseas.
Certainly, there are worse messages than those that highlight certain aspects of Christianity while leaving others unaddressed, or, at best, muddy and hard to discern. Blue Like Jazz is strongest when Don gives voice to God’s pursuing love—the idea that when God chooses you to follow him, you can’t run away. He’ll find you regardless of where you think you might be able to hide.
But Who is the God who pursues you? Why do you owe him your life, your worship? Blue Like Jazz stops short of investigating those questions. It’s more interested in watching Don struggle with his faith, feeling hurt by church leaders and the personal failures of those in his life and then trying (but ultimately failing) to leave Christianity behind. The conclusion is a good one, maybe the strongest part of Blue Like Jazz, but Don’s drifting and rebellion make up most of the film, and none of it is presented in ways that are surprising.
Blue Like Jazz might tackle spiritual ennui, but it’s surprisingly unengaging as a drama. In its efforts not to fall into the gospel-sharing-at-all-costs approach of Christian subculture movies, it leaves many issues of the Christian life unaddressed. Those who are moved by the film will need to investigate the Christian faith in much more depth to get a deeper understanding of what goes into a life of walking with Christ. Blue Like Jazz might be a good starting point, but don’t mistake it for anything more.
- Language/Profanity: “D-mn”; “pissed”; bumper stickers read, “Abstinence makes the church grow fondlers” and “I Found Jesus—He’s Drunk in My Backseat”; “dyke Messiah”; crude references to sex and sex organs; “b-tch”; a book title includes the word “SLUTZ”; a character says, “What the fu..” and trails off; “hell”; “bulls-it”; “as-hole.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Verbal speculation about being high; a remembrance of “a pothead father”; a planned party is said to have “wine, cheese and hot babes”; Don’s dad asks if he wants a beer, and says, “I won’t tell Jesus”; talk of “sharing a bowl”; drinking and drunkenness by college students (some underage), and a brief scene of a man who’s had too much to drink getting sick; drinking of cocktails on a tennis court; recreational drug use.
- Sex/Nudity: Don’s friend fantasizes about Don’s mom; a woman exits the trailer in which Don’s dad lives wearing only a T-shirt and underwear; bare-chested man shown doing yard work; Don’s mom has an affair with their church’s youth pastor and ends up pregnant; girls use the men’s room at Don’s college; bare-chested men form a small marching band; one character is a lesbian who lusts after a classmate; a woman says, “If you’re trying to seduce me, it’s not working”; a lesbian is crushed to find out that the object of her affection is straight; Don jokingly asks his gay friend, “Will you put out?”; the Pope says he had hoped to hear people confess to him “every kinky sex act,” but was surprised when someone confessed he’d been molested by a priest; large cover resembling a condom placed over a church steeple; two men kiss; Don removes his shirt and pants in front of Lauryn.
- Violence/Crime: Vandalism leads to a brief time in jail.
Marriage/Religion: A character remembers his father’s promise to never leave, although the father does; Don is a 19-year-old sorting out his Southern Baptist upbringing, and he remembers leading others in prayer; Don’s pastor quotes Ephesians while Don is dressed in “the full armor of God”; Don tells his father that the church bought groceries for the family during the years his dad dodged child support; student in a pope’s hat hands out condoms; joking references to S&M Wiccans and Jews for Jihad; a remembrance of someone who went to Mass and heard Jesus speak to him; a character says, “Every steeple hides a sleeper cell”; Penny tells Don she discovered in a Literature class that she likes Jesus “a lot”; Don listens to a public debate about God and asks questions of the participants; Penny says she never felt so close to God as when she visited Kashmir; the Pope makes sign of the cross and tells someone to “Go with dog”; Don realizes he’s ashamed of Jesus, and that he’s misrepresented God.
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.