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Film Review: Blue Like Jazz

Me with Donald Miller after the movie.
By contributing a whopping $5 to last year's effort to fund the making of "Blue Like Jazz" via Kickstarter, I put myself in line to receive an invitation to the Fort Worth premiere on March 21. This showing was part of a 30-city tour in which the author of the book by the same name, Donald Miller, appeared in person, accompanied by director Steve Taylor and lead actor Marshall Allman.

I went in guessing that the movie probably would stray far from the "Safe for the family" boundaries that many Christian-themed films seem bound to. And as it turned out, I was right. The PG-13 rating was earned. Because the story in the movie (which only bears some resemblance to the book) is essentially about a young man who renounces his faith before rediscovering it in a fresh way, it necessitated the depiction of various sinful behaviors and attitudes. There are a few naughty words, multiple instances of substance abuse, and flat-out mockery of Christianity.  Plus, a giant condom placed on a church steeple as a prank. One character is a lesbian, which, now that I think about it, was the missing element in "Facing the Giants". (Relax. I kid.)

Actually, it should be noted that the creators of "Facing the Giants" were at the center of a blog post written by the director of Blue Like Jazz, Steve Taylor. In a bit of remarkable timing, this post appeared the morning of the same day I saw the premier. In it, he called out Sherwood Films, the makers and distributors of several Christian-themed movies including Facing the Giants, accusing them of blacklisting actors who had worked on Blue Like Jazz.

While that part of Taylor's post got the most attention in the press the next few days, I was drawn to the meat of what he wrote: He challenged Christian filmmakers to deliver more excellent work, and he challenged Christian audiences not to accept mediocre films simply because they contained the "Christian" label.

Back to the movie. Because "Blue Like Jazz" is a book of essays, a fictional story had to be created for the film. In it, a Baptist goody-two-shoes high school student named Donald Miller finishes high school, then heads to the most godless college campus in the nation, otherwise known as Reed College. Miller, upset by some hypocrisy he witnessed at his home church, begins to question, then reject his Christian faith. The more he tries to fit in at Reed, the more he distances himself from the Jesus he has known all his life. He befriends Lauren, who's not romantically interested in him because he's male, and Penny, an under-the-radar Christian. He also makes friends with The Pope, a student who's loudly irreligious, and who is hiding some hurts.

All the way through, the story was compelling, but we all knew that it was destined to culminate with the mythic Confession Booth. I didn't expect a lot out of that scene, simply because I was familiar with it, thanks to the book. It's very hard to move a viewer emotionally when they know what's going to happen, as the element of surprise is gone. Despite this, the scene blew me away, and I wasn't alone. The audience gave this film a very deserving standing ovation.

I have only a couple of  objections to this movie:

1. The lesbian character, Lauren, is a bit over the top in her open lusting toward other women. My objection is not based upon her same-sex attraction, either. I would have been bothered the same had it been a man ogling, and speaking graphically, about the various body parts that were getting his attention. It was a bit of a distraction, actually.

2. Evangelical Christians, as a group, are treated a bit harshly in this story. Someone mentioned this in the Q & A session after the movie, and Miller responded that anyone who makes that claim "isn't being objective", and he pointed out that only one character, a youth pastor, is portrayed negatively. But the truth is that, while there are no other characters like him, there is the idea, persistent throughout the film, that evangelicals are generally a clueless and heartless lot, unable to think for themselves. It's talked about by several characters at different places in the story, so Miller's defense that there's only one real bad evangelical character misses the point. Interestingly, Miller said that comment cards from previous tour stops also had a problem with treatment of  evangelicals. Rather than recognize that there is probably a good reason if several people are commenting on this same thing, he dismisses the complaint as unfounded.

After the credits began rolling, Taylor, Miller, and Allman appeared at the front and took questions. I was first, thanking Taylor for what he had written that morning, because someone needed to say it. I am speaking of the part about the need for quality movies with Christian themes, not the tiff with the Sherwood filmmakers. In fact, it's a bit unfair when Christians who object to "cheesy" films point to the makers of "Facing the Giants". The reality is that most of these films are made by organizations other than Sherwood. Think "Letters From God", "Soul Surfer", and the "Left Behind" series. Truth be told, credit should be given to Sherwood because "Courageous" is much better than their previous efforts.  Not as good as "Blue Like Jazz", but still.....

For the record, I loved Blue Like Jazz. On a 5-star scale, I give it 4.5 stars.


Luke Mongtomery said…
I'm looking forward to seeing what all of the fuss is about... Thanks for the review. I value your balanced assessments and appreciate the time and effort you put into informing us... I've heard things on both sides and honestly I tend to believe the ones that say it is good over the opposition, simply because the point of the movie has to be about creating tension...

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