Blue Like Jazz is a film for rebels. The director, Steve Taylor, seeks to break from the stereotypical Christian sub-culture that produces poorly filmed and unconvincing stories where everything turns out okay in the end. Blue Like Jazz is based on a book with the same title written by Donald Miller as a semi-autobiographical account of his crisis of faith during college.
Donald Miller would rather critics not categorize the film into a specific genre. He describes the film as, “Just a movie about learning to be yourself so you can connect with people who aren’t like you and no longer live in antagonism with the world.” (To read Miller’s blog, click here) The movie is essentially a quirky, funny, and heartfelt indie film with a Christian message about forgiveness.
Donald Miller, the protagonist, has grown up in a conservative Southern Baptist church in Texas, but when he finds out that his divorced mother is having an affair with his youth pastor, Miller leaves in a rage to Reed College. In just a few days, his life takes a 180 spin as he goes from spending his nights with his youth group to drinking with his new lesbian best friend. He goes from a life revolved around church to a life at Reed College where he pretends not to be a Christian. The film recounts Miller’s story as he seeks to find himself, forgive his mother, and learn how to live out Christianity in a godless community.
The film is definitely entertaining and it kept my interest, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the protagonist. There are a lot of funny moments, like when Miller’s bike is stolen by a guy in a bear costume, or when Miller, Penny, and their friends dress up like robots and invade a Barnes and Noble book store to challenge corporate thought control. However, as a viewer, the rapid transition from Miller’s religious life to his rebel life comes so fast that I had no time to sympathize with him or understand why he put aside his faith so rashly. The only reason we are given for why he runs away to the liberal Reed College is because of his mother’s affair. However the audience is not given enough time to understand what an integral part church was for Miller, or what kind of relationship he had with his mother and youth pastor. We cannot sympathize with his sudden denouncement of Christianity and his major life change when he gets to Reed.
It seems like when Donald Miller wrote Blue Like Jazz, he was not really concerned about bringing a Christian message to his readers, but whether intentionally or not, he does. The main character’s love interest, Penny, is supposed to be one of the few Christians at Reed. Her Christian expression is played out by her interest in humanitarian work in India. This implies a work-based salvation; wait, let me explain. This theme is reiterated at the end of the movie when Miller has a serious talk with his atheist friend, apologizing for his and the church’s hypocrisy. He speaks a lot about wanting to live unashamedly as a Christian and loving people. He admits that he has failed at it, but his solution is a very I’ll-do-better-next-time. In his very blatantly Christian monologue, Miller doesn’t mention the grace he has received from God. The theology behind the film portrays a work-based gospel while living a Christian life.
The film is supposed to be a challenge to Christian media, and it is. Although the story is about a Christian and carries a Christian message, the film attempts to be honest about life at Reed College and about the struggles of faith that many college students face. The film contains cursing, crude humor, and drug and alcohol use, but it still is a movie about Christians. I appreciated the director’s honesty in portraying the world like it really is. Taylor admitted at the film screening that he even downplayed the craziness of Reed College, but when I saw it I was shocked by how free-spirited and chaotic the school was. Taylor is honest, and that is something that Christian media often lacks. He doesn’t offer a strong resolution and the characters don’t get all their problems nicely fixed, but this is life. Taylor rebels against the typical Christian film by attempting to show life as it is, even if it is offensive to some people.
As much as Taylor tried to rebel against the “Christian movie” genre, he still created a movie that is aimed primarily at Christians and that is still quite preachy. Miller’s last monologue with his atheist friend is basically an informal sermon. The content of the movie is amusing, and the characters are likeable, but the struggle of the protagonist is something that mainly Christians will relate to. I appreciate what Taylor and Miller are trying to do with this movie, but I still found it to be just another Christian movie with some controversial material included. Art is sometimes more impacting in subtlety, and an artists worldview will always shine through into his work. I would like to see a good director, like Taylor, just make a good film as a Christian with a Christian message that isn’t so in-your-face. I would like to see him make a movie that Christians and non-Christians can relate to and be impacted by.
This movie is a good rebel’s attempt at breaking out of the norm, so I recommend the movie to Christians. After you watch it, instigate a thought provoking discussion with your friends about a Christian’s role in redeeming culture and how to make art that will impact culture without being preachy.
For more information about the film, and to watch the trailer, go here. Also, please leave comments if you have seen the movie!