Author Donald Miller and director Steve Taylor have tried to distance themselves from the “Christian” movie genre. They don’t want to their new film Blue Like Jazz categorized with Fireproof, Courageous, or, for the love of Rob Bell, Left Behind.
Nevertheless, Blue Like Jazz, opening Friday after a nationwide series of advance screenings, is as Evangelically Christian as church-sponsored coffee houses.
Like Miller’s book from which it is adapted, the film follows a narrative familiar to people of faith: I once was blind but now I see.
Stand and testify, Generation Y!
The story serves as a testimonial for a cynical new generation, a tale of coming to faith. However, it’s told from the point of view of someone who grew up in the Evangelical church of the ‘90s and 2000’s and didn’t much like what they saw.
The movie doesn’t so much preach to the choir as to the kids who skipped choir practice to drink beer in the park with decidedly non-church approved friends.
Donald Miller is played by Marshall Allman, a professional actor with regular roles on HBO’s sexy vampire melodrama True Blood, a show that would make the altar guild squirm. The only main cast member who professes Christian faith, he was eager to play the part. “He said he’d been waiting for a role like this since he came to Hollywood,” Steve Taylor told me.
The movie deviates from Miller’s life and memoir quite a bit, making him younger and simplifying, but not minimizing, his family problems. For the sake of clarity, I’ll call the film version Don and the real life person Miller.
The film character Don is a teen who, devastated by what he suspects is an affair between his single mother and his adored and married youth group leader, leaves his conservative Texas Christian community. He picks the furthest thing he can find from his roots: An aggressively liberal, whimsically hedonistic Reed College outside Portland, Oregon.
The hyper-intellectual culture compels students to patrol campus dressed as a parody of the Pope not just to blaspheme – although that certainly happens – but to have literary, philosophical conversations questioning religion and life itself, often at 2 in the morning. It’s the type of place where ironic invasions of corporate bookstores happens more than book cracking- with the merry prankster students dressed as robots because corporations, by definition, want to control your mind and actions.
Or maybe beat poets. They could be beat poets.
It’s a far cry from Don’s unintellectual roots in which his youth pastor explained Jesus’s love by means of a donkey-riding, blanket-wearing, Mexican puppet with a bad accent.
As Don dives into the culture of the school, he hides his Christianity from the hostile crowd even as he embraces hedonism. His sexual escapades and drug adventures are implied in a purely PG-13 way, but drinking is shown. Making friends with a beautiful lesbian (Tania Raymonde) and an earnest girl (Clarie Holt), he slowly learns that everyone has troubles, whether in the church or out. The frenetic intellectualism echoes frenetic Christian culture as a way to hide from real problems. Maybe this Jesus person has some answers after all.
First and foremost – and this is important when talking about religious films – the production is professionally done. The acting is good, the direction seamless, the cinematography nice. Furthermore, Steve Taylor, who spent years playing with irony in the Christian music world, lets his humor shine through. Whether it’s that Mexican puppet lesson, an angry bear stealing a bike, or the wild protest stunts Don and his friends pull, the humor is fresh, funny, and not mean.
It’s an unusual thing to find oneself laughing in a movie about religion, but Taylor and Miller pull it off.
Secondly, the movie doesn’t dwell much on the politics of Donald Miller, the author. While the college is certainly liberal, the political atmosphere exists as a backdrop to Don’s spiritual journey. One could watch this movie and not know Miller is beloved by progressive (ie: Democratic) evangelicals and/or the emerging church movement.
The thing is, of course, that all of us in the choir do know it.
With a moving ending that embraces Jesus in theory but focuses on the wrongs done by the church, it’s hard to not recognize this film as another salvo in the theological struggles of recent years. Those who lean toward defined theology will find it frustrating while people comfortable with open endings will see it as another conversation in a series of conversations looking for truth.
Most of these questions are irrelevant to mainstream moviegoers, who may leave the theater scratching their heads or – equally likely – touched by an image or moment.
Is it a bad thing to make good movies about streams of thinking in American Evangelicalism? Not at all. That is why Taylor and Miller should embrace the “Christian” movie genre and, in doing so, reshape it as Miller reshaped “Christian” literature.