“This all happened because of a Sears catalog,” admits a post-adolescent voice in Eric Stoltz’s Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, referring to the erotic power of tame underwear ads in a pre-internet household whose parents did their best to keep racy, “worldly” temptations at bay. That’s one of many details giving the ring of truth to this memoir about coming of age as a deeply conservative Christian, a period piece about the battle between hormones and Heavenly thought. But the scene-setting works better than the storytelling in this sincere but clumsy picture, whose script (by first-timer Tony DuShane, author of the book it was based on) makes a bit of a muddle of the interactions between its teen and adult Jehovah’s Witnesses (and the occasional troublemaking nonbeliever). Though some adult refugees from puritan upbringings may appreciate seeing their lives represented here, the film’s commercial outlook is dim.
The “Jesus jerk” in question, Gabe (Sasha Feldman), is really less of a jerk than someone being jerked around by others’ unreasonable expectations. Expectations like the belief, firmly if inexplicably held by adult males at his church, that he and his 16-year-old buddies can get through high school without masturbating. The film knows better, and does a good job of conveying Gabe’s cognitive dissonance: He routinely gives in to this and other temptations, but his self-image remains that of a pure-living Witness who will come out on the right side of Armageddon.
Insider details don’t compensate for clumsy storytelling in a portrait of teen disillusionment.
Gabe drinks from time to time, is relaxed about penny-ante sins and even goes along with it when his bad-girl cousin Karen (Lauren Lakis) pulls down her top and puts his hand on her. (That happens right after she makes a casual reference to being molested by her father, something the movie is bizarrely uninterested in.) Shortly after this scene, we watch Gabe at school, where he is getting up the nerve to express interest in a girl. Viewers may be puzzled by the weight given to the first time he touches the hand of his second- or third-choice classmate crush, given the previous encounter. But the breast-grope actually hasn’t happened yet — one of several instances where chronology is jumbled for no apparent reason.
Also strange is the insertion, at seemingly random points, of documentary-like interviews with older Jehovah’s Witnesses. Little of what they say reveals much about the story’s themes, and none of it bears specifically on its characters. Given how little the talking-head moments add, it’s hard to justify breaking up a story that is already having a hard time pulling us along with it.
Gabe’s romantic anxieties are universal enough that we can empathize on autopilot, even if it sometimes seems there are enough beautiful girls making themselves available that he shouldn’t be worried. (In some cases, the script invests time in establishing a potential love interest only to forget about her completely.) And though it’s less universal, the screenplay helps outsiders understand how a minor or non-existent infraction might get a believer “disfellowshipped,” or shunned by his peers for a set period of time. (One adult is said to have been exiled for the sin of voting in the presidential election.)
But the film is more opaque about some intrachurch controversies that seemingly cause its most dramatic event. We twice catch a glimpse of a book, Crisis of Conscience, that seems to be causing believers to question their leaders; a few mentions of a controversy in Malawi back this up. But we’re not given nearly enough information to understand how this could lead to a climactic tragedy, or to guess what it says about the Elders who lead Gabe’s church.
Gabe’s father (Paul Adelstein) is one of those Elders, a stern man who believes he’s loving his child by trying to keep him away from the Devil. We know the type, but Confessions hints at darker specifics (his physical anger; his wife’s sneaky drinking) that, if explored more sensitively, might have made us care about the man and feel for his predicament. It’s tough to raise a child when you truly believe that being human will condemn him to hell. And, at least in this case, it’s hard to care much about the son without understanding the father who made him this way.
Production company: Trees of Shade
Distributor: Indie Rights
Cast: Sasha Feldman, Nicholas Harsin, Lauren Lakis, Paul Adelstein, Charlie Buhler, Kit DeZolt
Director: Eric Stoltz
Screenwriter: Tony DuShane
Producers: Craig Dow, Kenneth Hughes, Leah Steiger, Eric Stoltz
Executive producers: Denise Fedorchuk
Director of photography: Gavin Fisher
Production designer: Amy Castellano
Costume designers: Nikki Fosmore, Adriana Lambarri
Editors: Darren Ayres, Doc Crotzer
Composer: Brian Byrne
Casting director: Rita Bland