Directed by Steve Taylor
Release date: March 13, 2012
Reviewed by Justin Hanvey
QUICK HIT — Like the book it’s based on, Blue Like Jazz is a story about questions and faith, as well as learning to live out that faith among those with answers different than our own. It’s a bridge across the gap between Christian and non-, and an artful take on the whole dichotomy, with real human characters on both ends who learn and grow with each other.
Based on the book by Donald Miller.
When Jeffrey Overstreet calls a movie “playful”, he’s giving it a huge compliment. The element of play is integral to his understanding of what makes something beautiful art. And he’s right; Blue Like Jazz, is, at its core, playful. It’s also deep, ambiguous, and flawed, much like Donald Miller himself. Throughout, we see moments of whimsy (robots invade a book store to protest corporations who tell us what to read, an older student runs around in a pope costume) and moments of depth (the ending especially where Miller has his epiphany, and finds grace for not only his fellow students but also himself) but it has its flaws as well (weird transition sequences that seemed out of place).
In a sense, there are two stories being told here. One is factual: the story of Donald Miller, the real person, and how he struggled with issues of faith after leaving his Baptist upbringing to attend Reed College, one of the most liberal colleges in the country. The other is fictional: a young boy who runs away from his family after finding out his mother is having an affair with his youth pastor, attends college, falls in love with a pretty blonde girl, has a lesbian friend, etc. Both stories are integral to the point, because they illustrate how life itself is fact and fiction intermingled. We grow up hearing myths and stories that help us to learn and grow, to develop the morals of our society, and to learn what is expected of us, but we also live very real, mundane lives. Taylor expertly weaves these both into a tale that goes even beyond the book into its own territory.
Don’t write this off as just a cliché, indie, romantic comedy. In this movie we see flaws among all the characters paired with their goodness, which is a better reflection of actual life. At its heart, Blue Like Jazz is a movie about seekers, whether they are Christian or non-Christian. We have Miller himself, a brokenhearted angry boy ashamed of his own God, trying to become “everything to everyone” just so he can be accepted and liked while continually struggling with feelings of guilt over abandoning his family and his values. We have a lesbian character who is more than just her orientation; quirky and outspoken, she befriends Miller quickly, despite his beliefs. We have the fun loving best friend who likes to go around dressed as a pope, burn books that he feels are destroying society, and party with the hardest of them, but he is also a lost boy trying to be a man in a society that has only shown him horrible archetypes to follow. We have the socially active girl, who harbors her own faith close to her heart, trying her best to live it out among so many who have no real idea what that faith actually means. These aren’t stock characters; these are real people with real problems who laugh, play, dream, and cry among the scenes of this movie. As Miller abandons and rediscovers his faith, running from himself, he regains his ability to have compassion, to love them as Christ would have. The lines between Christian and non-Christian are blurred by the end to such an extent that we might almost feel like Taylor is saying it doesn’t matter what you believe, but we know this is far from the truth, and the movie also shows that what you believe defines you.
And so, it is a coming of age tale in a culture of faith or its lack, where the tension between those who believe and those who don’t is very prevalent, and it’s a realistic adaptation of that struggle we all face to find ourselves in a society of a million different answers. The movie ultimately doesn’t answer the questions it poses, hoping instead to inspire seekers just like Miller. It gives us license to seek and explore for God in ways that perhaps aren’t traditional, to be wrong, to admit that we don’t know, and it gives us reason to live our lives with grace, to see others as more than stereotypes.
This movie is not for kids. It talks openly about sex, uses almost every curse word in the book, and deals with some very adult issues. But a discerning parent could watch it with their older children and it would provide some excellent discussion afterwards.
In the end, it’s a movie about the questions we all ask ourselves as we grow through life. There are not necessarily any answers, instead admitting openly that the answers are not so easily found. It’s a humanizing film that draws real human characters across the spectrum. It’s a story about a boy losing his faith and finding it again. And it’s a parable, both to the church and the unchurched. Steve Taylor himself has said it’s not a “Christian” movie, in that it’s not just for Christians. It’s a good movie, one worth seeing, regardless of what you decide about its message in the end, and as far as movies about Christians in the last decade or so, I’d say it’s a real step in the right direction. Highly recommended.
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