Reviewing Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz” Movie

FYI: This review contains a few spoilers, though nothing that will ruin your film experience.

Nine years ago I was working as a Senate staffer and transitioning into a ministry where I would spend the next three years meeting with Members of Congress for prayer, but mostly staffers for bible study and discipleship. After a lunch meeting with a Cedarville University alum who worked as a marketer for Thomas Nelson, I was sent a copy of a book for which they had high hopes. That book was Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, a book that had a double-barrel impact in my own life.

First, it was personally impacting as it spoke directly to my own 20-something-post-evangelical angst. Even before I launched head-long into the Emerging Church conversation Miller’s book gave flesh to the phantom questions that had been lingering beneath the surface of my increasingly disillusioned heart. Second, the book was missionally impacting, because I ended up using this book in my ministry on Capitol Hill among post-Christian and post-Evangelical young adult staffers who either left the Christian faith and were struggling with their faith or were never part of the Christian faith in the first place and didn’t think there was any connection between their story and God’s Story. A few staffers even found Jesus and re-connected to the Christian faith after walking through this book.

So I have some serious history with this book, which is why I was delighted to be invited a few days ago to take part in the Grand Rapids preview showing of Donald Miller’s and Steve Taylor’s new film, Blue Like Jazz. Not only was I interested in seeing how closely it followed the original book’s story arc—it didn’t—I was also interested to see if it would reincarnate the positive, constructive voice that gave way to the double-barrel impact I witnessed nine years ago, mainly bringing (mostly) post-Evangelical young adults back to the Christian faith or post-Christian ones to it in the first place. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed as the film devolved into an artistic mantel piece for what I term post-evangelical grunge. More on that later. But first, my experience of this film.

Our time began with an opening chat by Miller himself. He opened waxing on about the state of cheesy and low-grad Christian films, quipping that BLJ isn’t a Christian film because Kirk Cameron doesn’t star in it. In fact, when asked a while ago if he had seen a Cameron film he said, “No, because I’m not a dumb ass!” Take note of that attitude toward the Christian sub-culture, an attitude that simmers below the surface of this film and plays into the post-evangelical grunge I mentioned.

From here, Miller explained that they wanted to tell the truth about what life really looks like. It is a comedy about reality, the highs and lows and struggles with living authentically and, to some degree, finding and loosing and re-finding faith. While I appreciated Millers characterization of reality to some degree, in the end that characterization devolved into a caricaturization, particularly of the Church.

But first, the reality Miller describes, though not along the lines of Millers own life, which was a bit of a disappointment. In the ending Q&A someone asked him how close the film mirrored his own life and he said it was “essentially true”—he indeed went to Reed College and was friends with Penny and sat in a confessional, giving a confession to the student body on the quad. 90% of the rest of the film was “essentially untrue,” however. So while the confessional was in—for most, a highlight of the book and also the film—the “swearing preacher” (aka Mark Driscoll) was out. Laura turned into Lauren, a lesbian. Conversations about God and penguin sex, out. Don the Rabitt and Sexy Carrot were in, but in meandering references several times throughout the film that were confusing to me who read the book and will not make sense as a plot device to those who haven’t. And the entire film takes place on Reed College, which leaves the house in Laurelhurst out of the picture.

These absences and truth-changes were intentional, however, because Miller saw the film Running with Scissors, which was based on a bestselling memoir, and hated it because it was almost exactly like the book. So Miller set out to entertain as much as he set out to describe reality—and describe he did, in ways that seemed overly crude and overly caricaturey.

The film begins in Southern Texas, the standard bearer of evangelical, often over the top, Christianity. Don Miller, played by the excellent Marshall Allman (“Prison Break” and “True Blood”—who apparently became a Christian a few years ago in Hollywood at 18, and was the only Christian who was part of the film apart from the directing and producing crew—is fresh out of High School and preparing to attend what appears to be a Southern Baptist college in the heart of Texas. He is an assistant youth pastor and works at a communion cup factory, drives a Pontiac that’s been pimped out with your typical Christian bumper sticker flair, and even breaks a cross piñata filled with pre-packaged communion cups the youth pastor used in a racially insensitive kids sermon—the first set of several over-the-top characterizations of Christianity.

(But then again, there is a kernel of truth in every caricature, right? Miller’s Christian eye-poking over our often out-of-touch ghettoism, reducing the precious body-blood experience of Eucharist to a crassly manufactured commodity—at which I was aghast when I experienced it in a non-SBC church in Detroit—and rampant hypocrisy is welcomed. We Christians should self-analyze and self-critique. My problem is that it seems like Miller tries to hard; his constant eye-poking undermines his cause in that it becomes cliché.)

So Miller is your typical poster child for everything Southern Baptist—well-behaved, quaint, naive. That is until he discovers his fellow laborer in Christ, the youth pastor, has been having an affair with his mom. This sends him into a crisis of faith—Christian hypocrisy, and its resulting faith-lessness, is a thick undercurrent in this film that results in several post-Christian rants. In response, Miller flees Texas to Oregon and enrolls in Reed College, where he experiences the full pallet of college life.

Though he initially awkwardly engages this alien world, Miller begins to fully participate. Alcohol, lesbianism, post-Christian sentiments all find their way into Miller’s SBC boy coming of age story, and along the way his faith fades. In a humorous response to his moms question about whether he had found a good church, Miller responds with the well-played one-liner, “No mom, I’m still looking for a church with a dynamic puppet ministry.” Later, he intentionally no longer identifies with being a Christian and joins in with the collegiate hedonism of his classmates—hey, at least they’re living authentically, rather than living as a hypocritical poseur like his youth pastor and mom, right?

Eventually, Miller comes around back to his faith in a powerful, poignant moment at the well-known confessional—though it’s not like it is in the book. I should add “sort of” comes around. After apologizing to one of the characters for the abuse he suffered at the hands of his childhood Catholic priest—again, another example of Christian hypocrisy overreach—Miller’s character then proceeds to confess something interesting: he confesses “being ashamed of Jesus.” He says he’s been ashamed of identifying with him like the dorky kid at the lunch table you want to avoid. Then he goes on to confess his misrepresentation of God, saying that he is nothing like God. “God isn’t a coward or fearful. He’s not anything like me.” In a moment of self-realization, he admits to his own hypocrisy in not loving the people around him as God tells him to. The film ends with a long line of confessants waiting to be confessed to by the over-eager hypocrite Miller.

If you’re like me you’re asking yourself, “So what is the point of this film? What is Miller trying to do?” During the end-of-the-movie Q&A, Miller was asked this same question. He says he gets that question asked a lot, actually. He stressed that it’s a movie not a sermon. He mentioned WORLD Magazine’s criticism for not sharing gospel. “And you’re supposed to share gospel, right,” He quipped, “because it’s a Christian film.” Instead of telling the gospel he said he wanted to show it through depictions of “real life.” He wanted to show real life with the hope that people would know they are not alone. Miller wanted to create a story where people who watch it don’t feel alone and people don’t have to hide their true self, though he said they had to walk a fine line of showing real life and not condoning it.  Though most audiences will probably be a mostly Christian one, he thinks that towing the line of authentic living will enable Christians to go with their neighbors and share how they identify with the story without it being a resolved, preachy story that instructs people not to do certain things.

To an extent I appreciate what Miller and his producing team has done. It is true that most Christian films have little credibility because they are so un-realistic. People in the real world, particularly in Miller’s college campus world, swear, go on drug and alcoholic binges, casually sleep around, and explore every mode of self-expression imaginable. So while I appreciate the level of realism brought to the film, one of my beefs with the film is that that realism is never resolved. If realism is the point of the film, what’s even more interesting is that that realism isn’t even posed as a problem that needs resolving. In my mind, that’s a big miss—on the problem as well as the resolution front. And I say that not merely because it’s a film produced by Christians, but because it’s meant to be an artistic piece of cultural engagement. My question to Miller is, “If you’re engaging culture, particularly as a Christian, why can’t you truth-tell about the problems in culture? And why can’t you provide some level of resolution, even a small alternative to the prevailing values and impulses of culture?”

(Interestingly, by failing to truth-tell to culture, the film ends up truth-telling merely to Christians. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but such a posture ends up transforming the film into a Christian film—aren’t films directed at Christians by nature merely Christian films?—the very thing Miller wouldn’t see because he’s no dumb ass.)

What is resolved however, is the angsty, cynical undercurrent of Christian hypocrisy. Now if that was the point of the film, Miller succeeded. Remember that it was the setting of Christian hypocrisy that led to the conflict: Miller’s crisis of faith and rejection of that faith. As a result, Miller stood in awe of the authentic expression of collegiate realism that pranced around him; it beckoned him, wooed him, and ultimately enticed him to join it himself. Not until he was confronted with an alternative authentic life—his friend Penny’s care-for-the-poor lifestyle—did he swing back to the Christian faith in an outpouring of self-confessed personal hypocrisy.

What’s fascinating about even this modicum of resolution is that the solution to Miller’s problem isn’t obviously Jesus: it’s authentic living perpetrated by the self! Miller’s character rightly confesses that he is not living according to the lifestyle to which he has given himself, the Christian life. He’s ashamed of Jesus, he doesn’t represent God well, he doesn’t even follow God’s command to love everybody—his heart hates everybody around him. So in reality he has become the very thing he grew to hate: hypocritical Christians á la momma and youth pastor fling.

Miller’s character seems convicted that he isn’t living as he is called to live as a Christian in light of Penny’s self-giving, social-justicey life, yet not in the way you might expect. It isn’t clear he’s convicted that the hedonistic life he’s been living in concert with his fellow Reedie is any sort of problem—a problem that actually markedly contributes to his hypocrisy in the first place! According to Miller his hypocrisy problem is that’s he’s a “coward,” he’s “fearful,”  he’s “unloving,” and “God isn’t anything like me.” The problem, however, is that his hypocrisy doesn’t seem to obviously extend to the hedonism he so readily, and proudly, embraced.

One of the problems in this film, apart from Christian hypocrisy, is the hedonism of Miller’s classmates. Yet, no resolution is provided. While I’m not as far in the “you need to preach the gospel” camp as WORLD Mag is, Miller dropped a big ball in failing to provide any resolution to this problem. In fact, I don’t remember that problem ever being addressed as a problem! Again, the problem seems to be Miller’s hypocritical attitude, not his hypocritical lifestyle—living in the flesh, rather than in the Spirit, as Paul would say. And where that attitude is nicely contrasted with Penny’s, Miller missed a perfect opportunity to naturally, appropriately contrast the hedonism problem head-on in a way that was more “showy” and less “telly” as Miller wanted to do with this film, anyway. Miller could have sharply contrasted Penny’s self-giving orientation in her care for the people of Kashmir over against the self-serving hedonism of her fellow Reedie. Yet, I don’t recall any obvious ways he did so, an unfortunate miss, me thinks.

I understand Miller’s tension-oriented shtick in regards to real life; the unresolved plot-line that makes jazz, well, jazz, is a fine, yet tiresome, analogy to our postmodern reality. Yet, are our Christian hands—even Christian filmmaking hands!—tied in the face of the perpetually unresolved postmodern narrative? Do we have nothing to say in the face of that narrative? Perhaps more importantly, does God Himself through Scripture have nary a word to breath into the authentic, yet rebellious-laden, life of the postmodern young adult?

In the end, while the acting was pretty good, the plot moderately cohesive, and the level of creative quality—between the musical scoring and videography—high for an independent film, the overall story left much to be desired. Not only was one of the main problems undergirding this film—the rebellious hedonism of young adults—left unresolved, nay unaddressed, the film constantly lapsed into one of its more frustrating aspects: what I call post-Evangelical grunge. While I’d like to address this aspect of the film in a separate post, what I mean by post-Evangelical grunge is reflected in Miller’s “I’m not a dumb ass” comment: it’s the exhaustingly cliché cynicism, ecclesial apathy, and angst-filled ranty critiques that mark the post-Evangelical critique of American Christianity. On this point, the film hit its mark with its constant hypocrisy drumbeat.

After all of this, I realize I sound as though the film has no redeeming quality what so ever. I should be careful to point out that isn’t true; there is some redemptive quality to the film. Not only does it address the real problem of Christian hypocrisy and it’s ensuing fall-out, as over played as that address is, it also provides a level of common ground around which Christians and their post-Christian friends can talk about “real life.”  I do think it will be useful in sparking conversations between Christians and their non-Christian, post-Christian friends, while leaving the resolving part up to the Christian. Which is probably the point that this almost thirty-two year old curmudgeon missed, anyway.

  • julie

    I don't want to see the movie and lose my love for the book "Blue Like Jazz." Is that a fair response? Good review, Jeremy.

    • jeremy bouma

      Thanks, Julie. That's probably a fair response. It was quite unlike the book, though it had been quite a while since I'd read it. And maybe I'm just at a very different place than I was when I read it. But the movie sorta spoiled my fond memories of the book! Watch at your own risk :)

  • ashleigh

    I read the first few graphs, then quickly scrolled the bottom so I wouldn't read too many spoilers or go into the movie with a preconceived idea one way or another. I'm hoping to see the movie when it comes out, and then I'll have to go back and read your whole review. But now that people are talking about losing their love for the book, maybe I shouldn't watch the movie…

  • John Q

    Saw the movie at sxsw and thought it was unfortunately another example of embarrassing Christian "art." I agree the story was not very good, and there was practically no resolution to any of the story arcs (which is even more funny considering they used the chapter title "resolution" to label the film's actual climax).

    As a filmmaker working in the industry I gotta say the directing was a mess. It was a mess. But the good news is that Christian audiences seem to be very forgiving (see also: not discerning) when it comes to the "artists" they support. This film feels like a natural second film from the director that did Second Chance starring Michael W Smith. So I guess if you liked that movie then you'll like this one.

    Personally, I feel bad for Donald Miller. I think he deserved much better than this.

    • jeremy bouma

      Thanks for your perspective John Q. I felt the same as you, and had a friend along who spent time at Disney confirm my gut, but didn't feel qualified to speak to the directing and compositional angle of the film. Will be interesting to see what happens on April 13 and 14. Unfortunately, I'm not confident it will pass the all important make-or-break opening weekend…

      • John Q

        Interestingly, most of the reviews seem to be positive, and the film production is already paid for from kickstarter (though not P&A – Prints & Advertising) so I would be surprised if it doesn't do well and be financially profitable.

        Kudos to you for posting an honest and insightful review!

        I did find parts of the film funny in their christian inside joke-ness. Very funny actually. Just a mess as a whole film.

        I think the kickstarter deal speaks volumes about the audience who will go to the film… so much money was raised via kickstarter (which is real cool!), but nobody ever asked who is making the film and how do we know they're going to do a good job with the material. Some would say that question is one of the most important to ask in making a film, but the audience didn't care then and I bet they'll pay now to see the film no matter what.

        • jeremy bouma

          I'm not sure if he mentioned this at SXSW, but in the GR showing Miller said that it was a $1.5 million film production budget and he needed $6 mill to break even. You'd probably know how that works more than me, but that seems like a lot to try and grab as an indy film…

          I also enjoyed several parts and could definitely resonate given my own baptist-eque background. It was certainly a funny, entertaining film. But I, like you, am a bit baffled at the overly positive reviews. WORLD Magazine came the closest to critically reviewing it. My group had several good things to say about it, but also several concerning things. I hoped to share some of those to help peeps better evaluate it. Glad you liked the review!

  • Jason Chatraw

    Great review, Jeremy. I grow tired of the snarky comments about Christian culture. We're not perfect and neither is anyone else. I like some of Miller's views but the man has no grace for other Christians. It's really sad. I would likely not go see a Kirk Cameron movie because I think he's in typically poorly acted films, but I wouldn't bang on him publicly. I don't think he realizes how it makes him appear … And maybe he doesn't care.

    Again, great honest review. I think I'll skip it or wait for a rental.

    • jeremy bouma

      Thanks for your words, Jason. Yes, I'm with you: I grow tired of Church bashing…from WITHIN the church. My wife said we have plenty enough people OUTSIDE the church bashing on the Bride, why do we need a voice from within? I'm all for critiquing American Christianity, but sometimes I'm just like, "enough already!"

      Thanks for your comments and, yeah: wait for the rental!

      • Keith Rowley

        Because "The Church" is not the bride of Christ it's a really messed up selfish institution. Christians who together form the church are the bride of Christ. We need criticism from within "the church" because maybe then we will actually listen before we drive more people away from both "the Church" the true church (meaning Christians) and from Christ.

        Just for context my wife and I attend a church we love with our two young kids, so I don't hate all churches and I do belong to one that meets both my definitions of church.

        However, I was laid off from working for my last church in the middle of the recession which felt like a betrayal (rightly I would still say) as they acted like a business instead of the family I thought they were (and they biblically should have been) so I have stopped trusting the institution of the church to do what is right for anyone but the institution itself and have recommitted myself to loving the people of God as the true church.

  • Keith Rowley

    FYI: Miller "apologized" on his blog for the "because I''m not an ass" comment and did a whole post about why he was sorry he said that.