There are the stories you find, and there are stories that find you. Blue Like Jazz was the latter for me. I don't remember the year or circumstances, but I stumbled across the book one evening at Borders, settled in to read the first chapter, and left the store with a half-finished, new potential favorite. Looking back now, I can't explain what made me connect with this rambling collection of essays, but there it was. I re-read it for the witty prose, the familiar story, and the comforting sense I'm not alone.
So of course, finding out there was a film version in the works made me excited and skeptical. Movies have this awful habit of ruining my favorite books, but when the book doesn't lend itself to a movie plot at all, the filmmakers treat it as a labor of love (chronicled in Don Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years) and fans step in to save it at the final hour, well... what's not to at least admire?
I saw this Friday night, opening night, a rarity for me. I went with my sister and a fellow Kickstarter backer that had already seen a rough cut. (I missed both pre-screenings in Orlando. Boo.) And though it's taken a couple days to process and puzzle out my thoughts, you know what? Blue Like Jazz is a good movie. It's edgy, quirky, funny, contemplative, uncomfortable, thought-provoking, and quietly subversive. Like the book, it gently alters you without you even knowing it.
The story, loosely based on the book then pruned into a tight narrative, is how 19-year-old Don, a Texan Southern Baptist kid whose life is church and college and working in a communion cup factory, diverts his Bible school plans and heads to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Culture shocked and desperate to fit in, he hides, denies, and questions his faith. The story is not only about coming-of-age, but coming to terms with a God that won't leave him alone, no matter how far he runs.
The otherwise heavy story is delivered with a sense of humor and humane tenderness, but I'm sure what kept me thinking about it hours later was how in some ways, it was like looking into an unnerving mirror. Throughout the film, the "Reedies" wander the campus in costumes and hide behind their personas, opinions, and snark, and Don learns to do the same. The ending scene in the confessional booth -- the most talked-about moment in both the book and the movie -- calls this out with astonishing grace. Just seeing this scene come to life was enough to make me grateful this movie exists, though the rest of the story's tall-bike ride is handled with the same care.
Of course, I guess I should tell you that yes, it's PG-13, and by Christian film standards, it definitely earns it, but it does so with tact and honesty. It's also not the book, though there are plenty of little details, characters, and symbols that fans of the source will pick up on... not to mention the constant use of the color blue.
Christian movie fans may be frustrated that there is no clear gospel message, no come-to-Jesus moment that will make it a good evangelism tool. Other reviewers have dismissed it as another message-laden Fireproof, still reeking of too much sermonizing. It seems people don't know what to do with it, which means you should probably go see it with friends and be prepared for some serious discussion afterward. I missed my turn driving home because my sister and I were talking too much after. That doesn't happen nearly enough.
To find a theater near you, check out BlueLikeJazzTickets.com.