AUTHOR’S NOTE: A much shorter version of this review originally appeared in this space.
I read and enjoyed Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz several years ago. I was never too wild about the prospect of turning it into a movie—the book rolls out a series of inter-connected essays, many of which chronicle Miller’s time at Reed College in Portland, OR. Take a step back from the book, though, and the potential for a story does materialize. Miller adapted his book with the help of director Steve Taylor and writer Ben Pearson. What they accomplished turns a corner for so-called “Christian” films. It may not achieve its goals, but it earns solid points for reaching for its goals instead of going after the usual offerings. There are no salvific speeches. No one gives their life to Christ. This is instead the story of a set of dry bones and how they come back to life.
Don Miller begins as a doe-eyed innocent, drowning in a sea of middle-America evangelical mediocrity. It’s tough to watch. Taylor captures this particular corner of Christianity so well that might as well be a mirror. It’s cheap, low-rent and embarrassing. And I don’t have a problem with that. I grew up in a very similar setting and spent much of my young adult life finding my way out of it. Taylor may well have intended to make these early moments feel this awkward. Awkward is fine, but a film cannot survive on awkward alone. Films give us an illusion of reality, and the awkward has to look interesting for an audience to buy the illusion. The Office did a good job capturing awkward moments and making them interesting. Whatever the secret sauce is, Jazz doesn’t carry it for the entire first act.
Once Don makes his move to Reed College, things start to change, mostly for the better. A close relative’s hypocritical choices inspire him to shake off the milquetoast faith of his childhood and drive hard and fast in the opposite direction. Don had been all set to go to a nice Baptist school where he would learn to be a youth pastor. Instead, Don heads to Reed—one of the most liberal school in the country.
At Reed we meet a trio of characters who exist to challenge the evangelical bubble Don wants to escape—an atheist, a lesbian, and a covert Christian. A lesser film would try to turn them into mouthpieces to spew an agenda and then make them all butt heads. Jazz doesn’t even try to do that. These are actual characters, and though you could argue that they come across a little flat in places, each comes from a very honest place. They help compensate for some of the film’s underperforming elements. Each challenges Don in ways he needs to be challenged, forcing him to confront the faith he wants to leave behind, and the God who will not let Himself be forgotten.
Some elements either lack the punch they deserve or land too late in the narrative to make a real difference. A late revelation that sends Don deeper into his hatred of hearth and home would have worked better as the inciting incident that sends him off to Reed. Arriving this late in the game, however, it only gives Don the opportunity to swear and throw a fit. Again, it’s an element the story needs, but it feels out of place.
At this point, I’m afraid you might want to think that the film works hard to attack middle-American Christianity. Please believe me: this is not the case. More than anything, the film wants to expose religiosity that fails to examine itself and remember that a very real world lives outside its clean white halls.
Before Don goes to Reed, his father offers some sage advice. “Go somewhere they don’t hand you a script and tell you to copy it.” The film strikes out on just such a path. This is a Christian film that swims against the current of other “Christian” films. It’s raw, it’s dirty, and it wants to ask some serious questions while it answers some serious indictments. It’s not the most artfully made film about the challenges of faith in a messy world full of messy people, but it earns a place at the table, even if it doesn’t quite earn the catharsis for which it aims.
Marshall Allman, Claire Holt, Tania Raymonde, Justin Welborn
Donald Miller, Ben Pearson, Steve Taylor
Based on the book Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Directed by Steve Taylor