Blue Like Jazz
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, sexuality, drug and alcohol content, and some language
“Life is like jazz, son, it never resolves.”
This advice, given to the main character by his father, reveals what some will see as the greatest strength and others will see as the greatest weakness of Blue Like Jazz. Precious little is resolved at the end of the film, but you do gain a sense of joy and progression throughout the movie that should mollify those who need a well-resolved ending and will delight those who relish the film’s jazz-like ethos that withholds resolution.
Donald Miller’s 2003 book is more of a collection of essays than a storyline. The movie takes the concepts laid out in the book and explores them through a storyline set at Reed College in Oregon—called “the most godless campus in America.”
The movie begins with Miller (played by Marshall Allman of True Blood and Prison Break fame) serving as an assistant pastor at a conservative Baptist church in Houston, Texas. He also works in a factory that produces communion cups, sealed with juice and wafer. While overt critique is never explicitly offered, there is a sense of foreboding with such packaged expressions of faith.
Miller begins secure in his faith, the church and what he knows. However, this security is shattered as he comes to realize that his mother (Jenny Littleton) is sleeping with the church’s youth pastor (Jason Marsden), who is married to another woman. He packs his things and treks off to Reed College on a scholarship arranged by his estranged father (Eric Lange).
Miller is thrust into a world in which being a Christian is taboo. He is advised by his new friend Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), a lesbian, to “get in the closet, Baptist boy” if he is to “plan on ever making friends.” The film plays with this gay/Christian role reversal. At another point, Miller discovers that a character attends church. “You aren’t going to out me,” she worries.
These scenes not only set up much of the course of the film’s story, but also solidify director-screenwriter Steve Taylor’s ability to use irony, discomfort and cross-cultural encounters to set up laugh-out-loud moments throughout the movie. These moments offer more than just humor and invariably make significant comments about the church and its relationship with the world.
Blue Like Jazz is more than a film about a Christian in a secular college setting. In many ways, it is an allegory for the realities that the rising generation of Christians must increasingly face in Western society. Churchgoing Christians are less and less the majority. There is a growing hostility to the church, largely in response to what the church has done or failed to do. Miller, as a representative of that rising generation, must figure out what to do with the baggage laid upon him by the past. He speaks for many young adult Christians as he reflects on his early experiences at Reed College: “I wake up every day, feeling lost in a sea of individuality.”
Much like its lead character, Blue Like Jazz seeks to straddle the two worlds of “Christian” and “secular” films. Those who dislike the church will find their voice consistently expressed in a way that will welcome them into the film and make them feel at home. This may, at times, go too far for conservative audiences. Still, these critiques are consistently tempered by characters and scenes that reveal beauty, hope and possibility for the goodness of the church—giving Christians a foothold in the film’s sometimes debaucherous setting.
Blue Like Jazz drives its story along the fine line between Christian and secular in a way that seeks to draw both “sides” a bit closer to each other. It also offers advice for the church. Spoiler alert: In one pivotal scene, when Miller as a representative of the church confesses the church’s sins to an atheist, we see the most significant transformation take place. “Do you forgive me,” he asks, “for misrepresenting God?”
In this scene it is unclear whether Miller or the atheist experience deeper transformation, but transformation is there and it is stunning. The moment is fleeting, but will likely be deeply rewarding for Christian and non-Christian alike. In the act of true apology, we see the ice break along the dividing line and hope for deep conversation rises from the frigid waters of contentious, contemporary discourse.
Blue Like Jazz is a playful, rich and deeply honest film with much to say to those both in and outside of the church. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the movie’s ideas or content, it will easily spark conversation and challenge most audiences to consider the perspectives on the church that they themselves do not naturally embrace.
The Rev. Mike Baughman is an ordained elder in the North Texas Conference.