Blue Like Jazz, which opened in limited release last Friday, is probably the most polarizing Christian film to come along in many years. One might even question whether it should be labeled a "Christian film" -- although I've never been certain of the precise definition of that term anyway. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the makers of the film don't seem terribly comfortable in the world of Christian moviemaking, and the film itself doesn't even seem to belong in the same universe.
An acquaintance of mine predicted that conservative Christians would hate Blue Like Jazz, but that opinion isn't quite accurate. From what I've seen, there are Christians of all stripes who hated it, and Christians of all stripes who liked it.
Personally, I liked it.
I've never read the book on which Blue Like Jazz is (very loosely) based, but I knew going in that I was in for something pretty different. As you may have heard, the film tells the story of an earnest young Christian kid, Don (Marshall Allman), who impulsively takes off for the secular Reed College, instead of the Bible college he planned to attend, after discovering his mother's affair with his youth pastor. Once there, the easily influenced Don soon sheds the trappings of his faith, doing his best to fit in with the hedonistic, anti-religious lifestyle around him.
The PG-13 film pulls no punches about that lifestyle. A filmgoer will see plenty of the stuff that we conservative Christians are always doing our best to combat: a kid dressed as the Pope handing out condoms; a bulletin board collage honoring homosexual students; college kids pulling stupid, anti-authority pranks; and lots of drinking and partying. Don's first friend at Reed is a lesbian student, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), who advises him to keep his faith "in the closet." But a strange thing happens: Much later in the film, after he's obeyed instructions, she observes that he isn't as nice as he used to be.
This signals something important about Don's journey and his surroundings. The setting and the circumstances are something you might see in any shallow and crass teen comedy, but the film itself doesn't seem to be actually on board with that milieu. For even while Don is embracing this new lifestyle, he finds himself deeply drawn to Penny (Claire Holt), a young woman who, though far from faultless, represents something better. When Don joins in a crude prank against a local church, it's Penny who confronts him about his callous willingness to hurt people he doesn't even know.
Because while Blue Like Jazz has issues with much of Christianity as it's believed and practiced in America today, it also exposes the hollowness and hostility of many of those who hate Christianity. If many of the people in Don's old church are ignorant and hypocritical, many of the students at Reed have precisely the same problem, lashing out at a faith that they don't even understand. Ultimately, no one is really demonized -- neither the Christians nor the anti-Christians -- but some people start to become aware of their own brokenness and need. And Don himself begins to realize that his problem was not Jesus, but his own weakness and fear. All this gives plenty of food for thought for those all along the faith-related spectrum.
This is definitely not a film for the whole family. But it is, I think, an important film for adults, both Christian and non-Christian, to see.