Warning: While watching “Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk,” a coming-of-age dramedy about the disillusionment of a hormonally inflamed young Jehovah’s Witness during the mid-1980s, you may periodically find yourself fearing that you nodded off, or blacked out, and missed key scenes of transition or contextualization. Making a disappointingly inauspicious debut as a feature filmmaker (despite considerable experience helming episodic television), actor-turned-director Eric Stoltz lurches from scene to scene with scant regard for remedying narrative gaps or inconsistencies of characterization. It’s almost as though, while adapting his own novel for the screen, screenwriter Tony DuShane simply provided a random sampling of highlights from his book, and Stoltz accepted the slapdash scenario as his overarching game plan.
Gabe (Sasha Feldman), the eponymous protagonist, is introduced as a 16-year-old high-schooler who’s not yet rebellious, but no longer unquestioning, as he grapples with demands placed on him by his parents and his church in their Utah community. He’s at that point in adolescence where it takes little more than a glimpse at ads for women’s undergarments in a Sears catalog to trigger masturbatory fantasies. At the same time, however, he’s been so successfully guilt-tripped by his upbringing that, even when his aggressively naughty cousin Karen (Lauren Lakis) bares her breasts and invites him to cop a feel, he is unable to act upon his urges.
Gabe sincerely wants to be on the right side of the angels, along with mom and dad, when the day of Armageddon arrives. On the other hand, he and his like-mined friends, who have correspondingly ambivalent attitudes about their standing as devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, enjoy drinking and misbehaving now and then. But their lust for the most part is assiduously regimented: In the not-so-distant future, after they’ve accepted marriage and responsibility, they will be upstanding suburbanites in the best of all possible worlds. “We’re going to have barbecues,” Gabe promises a buddy, “in between having sex with our wives.”
“Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk” follows Gabe over a year or so of crises large and small. His demanding father (Paul Adelstein), is a church elder, and in that capacity he must offer advice and pass judgment while counseling possibly errant members of the flock. (In the movie’s funniest scene, he receives the confession, delivered during a telephone conversation, of a husband who claims he “accidentally” sodomized his wife.) Dad is quick to relentlessly interrogate Gabe whenever he suspects his son may be contemplating a sin of the flesh — like, when Gabe is spotted holding hands with a girl at a school. (The movie repeatedly indicates that snitching is considered a sacrament among Jehovah’s Witnesses.) But his father is helpless to prevent other elders from temporarily “disfellowshipping” Gabe (causing him to be shunned by peers) as punishment for the grievous sin of spending the night under the same roof (albeit in a different room) with an inebriated female classmate.
Here and there, Stoltz indicates there are darker dimensions to his characters: Gabe’s father has serious anger issues, his mom is a closet alcoholic, and Karen casually admits that her father has sexually molested her. But these hints remain nothing more than teasingly underdeveloped allusions. Likewise, there’s never any explanation given for the repeated willingness of Gabe’s deeply religious father to OK his son’s frequent trips to San Francisco, a place dad is said to view as a moral cesspool. The movie proceeds in an annoyingly arbitrary fashion until, instead of drawing to an emotionally and dramatically satisfying conclusion, it merely stops.
Interspersed among the disjointed episodes are snippets of what appear to be interviews with older Jehovah’s Witnesses, most of whom seem to uncritically accept the demands of their faith. Any similarity between these segments and the “testimonies” offered throughout Warren Beatty’s “Reds” probably isn’t coincidental. But that doesn’t make them any less discordant here.