Blue Like Jazz (rated PG-13) is crisp, intelligent, and entertaining. Steve Taylor's film adaptation of Donald Miller's 2003 bestseller is-as you might expect from a film based on semi-autobiographical essays-a bit self-conscious. The filmmakers took great pains (as Miller describes in a later book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years) to deliver a movie that is genuine and rich in character development, and that hints at resolution, rather than simply handing it to the audience. Donald Miller fans will notice a few changes from the original story, but the film resembles the book closely enough to be satisfying to the devotee.
The protagonist Don (Marshall Allman) begins the film as a clean-cut, Southern Baptist Texan, starched khakis and all. He volunteers to work with the children at his church, where they drink red Kool-Aid together and dress up in plastic "armor of God." The depiction of American evangelical Christianity is both hilarious and painful; it looks culturally insensitive, cheesy, and downright disturbing.
The film depicts what happens when, out of disgust and pain from his ruptured family, the protagonist discards his Christianity and heads to Reed College, reputed to be the "most godless campus in America." Eventually, Don finds himself deeply hurting others, completely isolating himself, and literally crawling in excrement. Instead of "finding himself" at college, Don finds that he cannot outrun his own search for meaning and God's love for him.
Blue Like Jazz will likely offend those seeking Christian films that spell out Christian messages in large, Hollywood-sign-type letters. If you're looking for the ending where Don's lesbian friend becomes a celibate Christian because Don finally stopped being ashamed of his faith, you're not going to find it. Instead, you will find the film provocative both for what it leaves in and for what it leaves out.
What it leaves in: Parents will want to consider several explicit elements, including drug use, disturbing images, vulgar pranks, frank discussions of sex and homosexuality, frequent profanity, and other realistic depictions of a wild college party life. Don gets into some interesting situations, caught in the tension between the messy and the clean, the redemptive and the degenerate.
What it leaves out: an explicit roadmap to salvation that one might expect in a film about losing and finding faith. Instead of verbally presenting a message that the listener must take hold of, this film portrays a God who takes hold of the sinner, who forgives and enables forgiveness, all while patiently weaving His love and redemption into sinners' messy stories.
The film leaves the audience with a few lingering questions. What exactly is the true theology that replaces the religious clichés at the beginning of the film? Is this film merely about one man's existential crisis, and how he finds friends who will accept him, in spite of his faith? Or does it, however subtly, point to something that transcends the "my truth, your truth, it's all truth" attitude embraced by many of Donald Miller's generation?
And finally: What is so glorious that it would draw a young man back to God, particularly when he has the option of living for himself in an environment where limitless self-expression and hedonism are celebrated?
These questions may be unsettling, but they are exactly the ones young Christians are asking. This is not simply a film about one man's existential crisis; it is about a young man's encounter with his own selfishness and search for meaning, and with Someone whose love will not let him go his own way. True theology is embedded in the film, but the viewer will have to dig for it. Perhaps the filmmakers want us to look for a beautiful, holy seduction that is better than the best that sex, drugs, intellectual superiority, and moral free-for-all have to offer.
-Hannah Kaminer works for World News Group in Asheville, N.C.