Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review: Blue Like Jazz

Blue Like Jazz and I have a history. I first read Donald Miller's spiritual memoir when I was a young college student living in Portland, OR. It was my first time living away from home, the first time I had to make important life decisions completely for myself, and the first time my faith ever collided with doubt. Reading Blue Like Jazz was like a breath of fresh air as I emerged as an adult into a maturing faith. I didn't know Christians were allowed to think this way, to ask these sorts of difficult question about God and the church. I also didn't know Christians were allowed to write this way, with a vulnerability and candor that felt more real than much of the spiritual self-help books I had encountered in the past. Perhaps it was the fact that I was reading a Portland-based spiritual journey in the very city itself. I've driven the roundabout on 39th and Glisan countless times; I've sipped dark espresso drinks and stared out the expansive windows at Palio's coffee in Ladd's Addition; I've walked back and forth over the Hawthorne bridge; for a brief time, my wife and I were a part of the wonderful church community Don attended, Imago Dei.

So when I heard that Blue Like Jazz could become a movie, I was filled with mixed feelings. On the one hand, most book-to-movie adaptions have a tendency to be lower than one's expectations; the book is always better than the movie. Further, Blue Like Jazz is a book about Christianity. Great movies with a strong Christian theme are a rarity, and most Christian films tend be heavy-handed and didactic rather than creative or nuanced. On the other hand, I wondered if it could become an exception to the rule--maybe Blue Like Jazz could be a really good spiritually-enriching movie. I was filled with both hope and apprehension.

After problems with getting project off the ground, and a historic Kickstarter fundraising movement, Blue Like Jazz is now a movie. While it's a movie based on the book, the parallels are more thematic than direct. The essence of the story is there--a young man, Don, leaves behind Texas and his conservative Christian upbringing for the liberal and liberating world of Portland, OR. Don (Marshall Allman) has a boyish charm to him, grounded in his unquestioning involvement at a local Baptist church. When a sudden betrayal leaves him disillusioned with the church, Don's absentee father enrolls him at Reed College, a quirky environment of brilliant misfits with genius-level IQs and a penchant for weirdness. The weirdness of both Reed and the conservative church offer moments of irreverent humor; Don simply trades one bizarre culture for another. Upon entering Reed, Don builds a friendship with cynical lesbian, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), and grass-roots revolutionary Penny (Claire Holt).

For better and for worse, this is the story of Don. Many of the other characters make only brief appearances or feel underdeveloped, though all serve a purpose as the relational railings that Don bumps up against on his spiritual journey. Don's childlike naivete quickly turns into cynicism as he rejects the faith of his upbringing for any meaningful moment he can experience. When he's finally honest with himself, Don is running away from the pain dealt to him by the hypocrisy of the church. It's a faith journey marked by authentic moments of questioning and doubts. In this sense, Blue Like Jazz is akin to Saved! in its critique of the hypocrisy and vapidness of the Christian subculture. Both films portray a youth pastor in an antagonistic light; both films poke fun at the silliness of church services; both films reveal how many churches fail to offer grace when people make mistakes. However, while Saved! concludes that a rejection of Christian faith is the true key to salvation, Don loses his faith in the Christian subculture while reigniting his faith in Christ himself.

It is this spiritual journey where Blue Like Jazz shines. In developmental psychologist James Fowler's framework for our stages of faith, stage four is describe as the "individuative-reflective" faith, marked by angst and struggle. The individual must take responsibility for their own faith, deconstructing the inherited faith they garnered from their childhood and reconstructing it into something fresh. There is an increase in spiritual self-awareness and an openness to complexity and paradox in one's beliefs. It all comes back to the simple questions of trust--Can I trust God? Can I trust my experiences? Can I trust spiritual authorities and relationships?--that are difficult to adequately answer. Blue Like Jazz invites the audience to wrestle with these very tensions without allowing for pat answers. While Blue Like Jazz doesn't contain the spiritual complexity or layers of, say, a Terrence Malick film, that's not its goal. It is a straightforward narrative, following a basic arc that allows its protagonist to experience both conflict and resolve.

Some of the strongest aspects of the film are unexpected. Its soundtrack is particularly good, with Portland-based band Menomena offering its musical creativity to create an atmosphere of spiritual searching. I was also pleased to see that the quirky vibe of Portland was retained despite many of the scenes being filmed in Nashville, TN. More than anything, it's impressive to see a low-budget indie Christian film be so...well...good. Sure, there are some weak points, particularly in a few scenes involving CGI that were distractingly poor in quality. But from the script to the acting to the cinematography, Blue Like Jazz is unique in its handling of a spiritual coming-of-age story. It's a film I would gladly invite a group of high school or college students to view with me, though some of its content wouldn't be meant for children (read: innuendos and crass language abound, though all are contextually appropriate). Blue Like Jazz is a sincere and affecting Christian film without the heavy-handed message or a neatly wrapped-up ending. In fact, by the conclusion, much is left unresolved. It's a bit like jazz that way.

1 comment:

  1. Another great review of Blue Like Jazz. I just saw it. Gotta agree on those painful CGI scenes, but yeah, overall thought this was a really solid movie.