Jesus Fish
Caustic, Sharp, Low-budget Satire

What are the odds that I’d find myself writing reviews for two—count ’em, two—Tulsa-based independent films on the same day?  Whatever the odds, I beat them.

Unlike its church-produced, formally distributed, and publicist-promoted cross-town counterpart Treasure Blind, Titus Jackson’s Jesus Fish pretty much fits the profile of a true indie: a low-budget, rough-hewn, and very personal satire that is about as far from standard church fare as you can possibly get… yet still driven by passionate care for the Body of Christ and its image.

Rob Harris as Jerome in Jesus Fish

At its core, Jackson’s film tackles one of the Church’s biggest PR problems: rampant hypocrisy.  It’s bad enough that, every year or so, major scandals bring down mega-church pastors like Ted Haggard and Bob Moorehead.  But one of the dirtier secrets-that-everybody-knows is what goes on in young-adult Bible studies.  Things like the guys who are there just to pick up chicks, the obliviously delirious holier-than-thou pity-piety that turns sinners into salvation projects, and study leaders who essentially host Mary Kay parties featuring a strictly cosmetic and commercial approach to Scripture and evangelism.

In Jesus Fish, Jackson pitches us a profane and caustic look at one of these self-helpless groups.  Three girls just walked into a meth den. Two young men just hit someone on an empty road. One man just stepped into a hospital with a shotgun. And the one thing they all have in common is… they all go to the same Bible Study!”  Thus aptly does the film’s official blurb describe the action.

In a fashion not dissimilar to Clerks—Jackson’s work here in fact makes me conceive of him as a young, Protestant Kevin Smith—Jesus Fish sees all of these characters for who they really are: works of sanctification deeply in process, neither exponents of triumphalist health-and-wealth gospelinanity nor Leave It To Beaver suburban blanditude.  Jackson has known characters like those he paints here, I’m fairly certain… and loves them anyway, because that’s the true spirit of Christ.

The film certainly betrays its obviously low-budget origins—Tulsa World reported a year ago that Jesus Fish was made for a mere $3000—and it’s often hard to tell if certain performances are intentionally stilted or if the actors recruited are just not quite up to the challenge.  But Jackson employs a sardonic style that keeps us guessing, and he does an awful lot of things right: he knows, for instance, that lighting and the soundtrack make a huge difference in how a film looks and plays, and he weaves an Altmanesque story that never feels one bit contrived.

Several of the performances are quite memorable as well.  Amy Harris stands out as the hooker who sets the plot in motion, and co-producers Matt Lord and Rob Harris steal nearly every scene they’re in as mismatched, sparring chums Gyro and Jerome.  Starr Hardgrove also strikes just the right tone as the pompous windbag who leads the Bible Study, and Cevin Behe, as the Jesus stand-in Jay, might easily have stepped in out of any big-budget production.  Jackson may not make all the best choices with his camera work, but he knows how to cast and coach performances that fit his decidedly off-kilter (and colorful) vision.

But if you elect to check out Jesus Fish, be prepared for a decidedly guerrilla experience. It’s rough, it’s guttural, and it ain’t your mama’s bumper-sticker vision of the Church.  Prepare to be provoked, in the best sense of the word. If you’ve got the stomach to make it through the film’s opening scene, you’ll likely end up entertained by a filmmaker with something worthwhile to say… and probably a more polished film or two up his sleeve somewhere down the road.

Jesus Fish is available for download online, and the producers expect it to be available via Amazon and Netflix in the very near future.

Jesus Fish has not been rated by the MPAA, but has elected to stamp itself with an R.  That’s appropriate: while the film doesn’t fully achieve the four-letter vulgarity of a Kevin Smith film, the language alone will add some salt to the ol’ salt and light, and many of the images and themes are far more provocative than anything you’d find in, say, Religulous.  Don’t even watch this with your teenagers… unless you’ve had a chance to watch it yourself first, and then consider it appropriate.

Courtesy of the filmmaker, Greg screened an early finished cut of Jesus Fish.