A pattern has begun to develop at Casa ‘Strom: If a movie is reviled by critics, but loved by audiences, it’s probably a go. Last year’s Machine Gun Preacher (29/61), and Act Of Valor (25/80)—though we didn’t know the split when we went to see it—and now, Blue Like Jazz (45/93).
This is the odd tale of Don Miller, a Southern Baptist from deep-in-the-heart-of Texas who has a crisis of faith shortly before leaving for a Christian college, and ends up at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Reed is a Godless, heathen cauldron of bubbling decadence—I mean, moreso than even your average university.
Don is quickly advised by Lauryn, a neo-Lesbian who unabashedly uses the unisex bathroom—the urinal, even—while he’s in there, that he needs to get in the Christian closet if he expects to survive the year. As a white, Christian male, he is the source of all the world’s problems.
What follows is a year of sly conformity, a friendship with the Reed College “pope”, and the pursuit of a devoted activist, a comely, chaste blonde named Penny who is no dilettante when it comes to fighting for a cause she believes in.
The quirky characters and antics keep the movie entertaining, but unlike your average “coming of age” college story, there’s some serious meat under here. Don struggles with what it means to be a Christian, when so many Christians are major-league jerks. Ultimately he struggles with the concepts of Jesus and God, and the very essence of religiosity.
This is not a preachy movie, however. There is a ton of debauchery (though no explicit sex or graphic drug use), which has upset some Christians, and one of the things Don has to wrestle with is that he’s sometimes embarrassed by others of his faith. (Which probably also may have cost it some popular support.)
But, seriously, how different is any of it from missionaries going out among the savages a thousand years ago? Not at all, really.
I was really pleasantly surprised with how the movie ended; in many ways, it’s a perfect resolution to Don’s character arc. The Boy decreed, after seeing this, “Critics are dumb. And they have bad taste.”
I had a kind of eerie feeling throughout the proceedings. British directory Lindsay Anderson directed a trilogy of films: If… (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982) with Malcolm MacDowell as a hapless naif who stumbles his way through degenerate British society—and this was a kind of late ’60s/’70s thing, this genre of counter-culture movies design to show the wickedness of society while celebrating various other kinds of wickedness.
This reminded me so strongly of that kind of movie, with the weird vignettes of Portlandia, only from the other side. Twenty to thirty years after these guys won the war, the society that they’ve created is a bad parody of the parodies they ushered in the revolution with. The ignorance, amorality and just general pagan-ness of the proceedings—well, I think these are scarcely exaggerated. Kids are now being taught by teachers who were taught by teachers who had no interest in the truth.
The movie wisely steers clear of any expounding on these topics, just preferring to observe them. In a way, it presents this decadence as a failure of religion, and that’s a fair cop. Even if we are sympathetic to the assault religion has undergone in the last century, on principle, you can’t control something you won’t take responsibility for. And the movie has an interesting response to that.
This is a really fine, solid film, that was saved by Kickstarter funding when traditional means of funding fell through. And unless you’re completely allergic to Christianity, it’s very watchable.