SXSW FILM 2012
By Linc Leifeste | March 18, 2012
Director: Steve Taylor
Writers: Steve Taylor (screenplay), Don Miller (story, screenplay), Ben Pearson (screenplay)
Starring: Marshall Allman, Claire Holt, Tania Raymonde, Justin Wellborn, Eric Lange, Jason Marsden, Will McKinney, Jenny Littleton
An adaptation of Christian author Donald Miller’s New York Times bestseller listed memoirs, Blue Like Jazz is a film that is going to face an unusual level of critique, scrutiny and judgment, likely to come particularly from those at both ends of the religious spectrum. A challenging book to turn into a film due to its stream of consciousness narration, director Steve Taylor and crew have for the most part succeeded in turning out a generally entertaining film, but one that will probably be too centered on Christianity for those averse to religion and too “edgy” for those of the Christian faith who like their films Kirk Cameronesque.
Taking liberty with Donald Miller’s actual story, Blue Like Jazz presents Miller (Marshall Allman) as an 18-year old freshman, just leaving behind his Texas and Southern Baptist home to attend the very liberal and progressive Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In reality, he was a 30-year old writer when he audited classes at Reed, but that evidently wasn’t as good of a story. That’s not the only fictionalization the movie carries out, presenting Miller’s mother (Jenny Littleton) as having become pregnant by his very ridiculous and very married youth pastor, Kenny (Jason Marsden). In the movie, this hypocritical act is the final straw that causes Miller to pack up his bags and flee to the college that his pot-smoking, jazz-listening father (Eric Lange) has managed to get him admitted by pulling a few strings.
Once Miller is at Reed he’s confronted with behavior that he finds shocking…there are atheists and people eat “magic brownies” and openly challenge Christian thought…and at the same time liberating. He soon friends attractive lesbian, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), who lets him know how square he is and that if he wants to have any chance of getting along at Reed, he’d be better off hiding any Christian leanings. Another of his friends is campus celebrity The Pope (Justin Welborn), an outspoken atheist perpetually clad in ironic papal clothing. Of course, he also friends and romantically pursues Penny (Claire Holt), the social conscience of the film who is involved heavily in humanitarian causes but is also openly a member of a church near campus and she seems to be getting along fine on Reed’s campus.
Miller initially sheds his Christian faith, experimenting somewhat with the local bohemian culture and even openly mocking the faith expressions of others in classroom discussions. It is after his involvement in a prank involving the mild defacement of church property that he seems to begin to veer back toward faith. Unbeknownst to him, the church that was targeted was the same church attended by Penny, who tearfully tries to explain to him the damage that the prank has caused among the faithful.
The film’s narrative arc ends with Donald Miller again back in the folds of the Christian faith but no longer a person lacking in doubt or sincerity, with a faith far removed from the Southern Baptist cultural Christianity he had brought with him to Reed. But the shift will probably be too slight or subtle to be understood by many outside of the Christian worldview. In fact, the first question that was thrown at Steve Taylor and Donald Miller at the South by Southwest post-screening Q&A I attended was along the lines of “So the character starts off really Christian and ends up really Christian. What’s the point?”
While I was able to appreciate the shift in Miller’s spirituality, I was more struck by a lack of depth in the some of the characters presented in the film, particularly the ones from Miller’s Texas church roots. Kenny the youth pastor is a one-note joke of a character that is mostly a caricature. I’ve had my own experiences with the type so I know the presentation is grounded in reality but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that presenting him in such a way was the easy way out. In fact, the whole storyline of Kenny impregnating Miller’s mom seemed forced to me.
While the film contains enough material to warrant its PG-13 rating (and rumor has it they had to cut footage in order to avoid an R rating), which will be enough to guarantee that those in the more conservative Christian circles will probably avoid or dislike the film, I couldn’t help but feel that the film only skirts around the darker side of college life. Sure there are scenes of people drinking and there are some “magic brownies” and people are handing out free condoms, but there’s never any real sense of consequence from any of this and not much sense that Miller himself was that involved.
Where I think the film is successful (beyond being generally entertaining) is in its presentation of Miller’s exposure to a more diverse world and his acceptance of others. There’s a moving scene where a heartbroken Lauryn comes to Miller’s dorm room late at night looking to be comforted and ends up spending the night next to him in his bed. Likewise, the emotion-laden closing interaction between Miller and The Pope is moving and feels authentic. The message that we are all flawed creatures worthy of each other’s respect and that believers and nonbelievers alike can benefit from dialogue and friendship with each other is one that hopefully will be well received.