I’ve noticed a trend of Christian films which have tried to be “edgy” over the last few years. Some, like the dreadful Fireproof, have not only failed to be edgy films – they have failed on nearly every film-making category imaginable. Other films, such as Second Chance and To Save a Life, have managed to capture some real life angst. Second Chance was, unfortunately, held back by the fact that Michael W. Smith has a difficult time being anyone other than himself. It did, however, manage to offer a decent critique of America’s “bigger is better” version of the Church. To Save a Life dealt with some significant teen issues (the lead character, gasp, has pre-marital sex) and tries to handle a character’s transition into faith with some integrity. It fell short, however, in it’s use of cheesy “four spiritual laws” interludes and some cliche moments (the pastor’s Son is a druggie, haven’t seen that before).
These films never quite managed to get to the realm of “edgy” perhaps because they weren’t trying to tell a story, but to preach a point. Second Chance deserves better company, but gets tossed in because it made use of an Evangelical Culture icon as a hook – and it wasn’t necessary to do so. Fireproof seemed to have characters who existed only to preach a sermon and then walk off camera, never to be seen again. To Save a Life reduced the powerful story of a high school senior facing his own guilt over abandoning a friend and impregnating his girlfriend as he began to embrace the faith to a tract. One tried to tell Christians, “See, we can be artistic too” and the other two devolved into evangelistic crusades. Actually, Fireproof had never actually evolved in the first place, that flick should only be watched with a Riff Trax. Sadly, one does not yet exist.
Then along comes the film Blue Like Jazz. Based on Donald Miller’s book of the same name, Blue Like Jazz finally manages to leave behind both the “us too-ism” of so much Christian art and the “get ’em saved” mentality of an evangelistic crusade. The result is a film that isn’t “edgy,” but transcends the gimmick in order to become “art.” Steve Taylor, who also the force behind Second Chance, has put together a film which finally depicts a crisis of faith in a way which finally rings true. Amazingly, the movie manages to hold on to a main theme from the book, “Jazz, like life, doesn’t resolve.” In similar fashion, the resolution of the film is unresolved. It is the beginning of Don’s new faith journey, rather than the solution to all the conflicts he confronts throughout the story.
Blue Like Jazz breaks from it’s evangelical roots in other ways. Instead of masking language, and other social practices common to the college atmosphere (and Reed, in particular) it shows them as part of that world. As Don proceeds through his crisis of faith he blends in to the culture surrounding him and partakes of all the vices introduced to him. This isn’t depicted as “Don rebelling” but as “Don exploring a different world.” When Don comforts his lesbian friend and asks if she would consider “putting out” it fits the story. When Don is confronted by a scheme of the “Pope” and responds with, “I need a beer” it feels like that’s what Don would do at that point. The authenticity of these moments are important – they aren’t gimmicks but artistic decisions so the story can be authentically told. Without this authenticity the beginning of Don’s new spiritual journey would have come off sounding like its “evangelistic tract” predecessors. By managing to to deal honestly with the characters, Blue Like Jazz at last depicts a faith journey through the art of film.
Fans of the book will quickly realize that film is its own entity. In the book Donald Miller becomes part of a small underground Christian group on Reed which suffers the ire of the student body not infrequently. In the movie Don’s faith is in absolute crisis for much of the story and never joins the Christian underground. The shift is notable, but wise. In the book the suffering the small group of believers experiences is set in the context of Don’s inner thoughts – and in them we find sorrow and compassion for the people who are treating the group poorly. The movie wouldn’t have been able to reveal those thoughts, and may have succumbed to an “us versus them” mentality in which Christians would be sanctimoniously throught of as “the good guys.” By placing Don outside the faith for much of the story many of the same themes explored in the book were still present, but from a perspective which managed to make Don’s journey “the story of us” instead of “the story of us versus them.”
I highly recommend this film, and would love to explore both the book and film in a group discussion at some point. If you have religious scruples about seeing swearing, sex, and drugs on screen be prepared to be ruffled a bit – none of the above is gratuitous but it’s there. I wouldn’t let my daughter see this film quite yet, but in a few years I would like to sit down with her and the the youth group as an exploration of a faith journey passing through crisis. Check it out.