The truth is I've always been a bit of an outsider when it comes to organized religion. Having grown up in what I now consider to be a cultish denomination, Jehovah's Witnesses, I've always had a bit of an estranged relationship with contemporary Christianity even as I've more aligned myself with healthier denominations, attended seminary, become ordained, and maintained a secular film review site with a strong devotion to faith-based cinema.
I've been kicked out of two churches, Jehovah's Witnesses included, and I entered ministry almost entirely inspired by my overwhelming desire to become the minister that I needed most. I thought about my last expulsion from a church often throughout writer/director Nathan Clarkson's Don't Know Jack, the first film that the well-known faith-based writer/director/actor/producer has made outside the often rigid framework of the faith-based film industry. In the film, Clarkson plays Jack, a man whose life journey has led him toward the decision, both emotionally and intellectually grounded, that suicide is his most reasonable alternative. However, just in case he's wrong he gives a counselor, Ron Scott's Leslie, one hour to convince him not to take his own life. Playing out in what is essentially real time, Don't Know Jack unfolds stories about life, love, and loss.
As is true for most people, my introduction to the work of Clarkson came through his work in the faith-based film industry. While he's had his share of bit appearances in non faith-based projects, Clarkson's name has become known largely through his faith-based film work. In 2021, Clarkson announced his intentions that he'd never again make another Christian film. It's not that Clarkson has given up his faith. Instead, one might argue, he's simply living into it more fully and desires to tell stories that are more honest, transparent, challenging, and accurate than Christian films are often allowed to be.
The truth is that life isn't always family friendly.
Don't Know Jack finds Clarkson moving ever so gingerly toward more honest and not so family friendly storytelling. Don't Know Jack is far from a graphic film and most certainly deals with matters of faith. In fact, it even for the most part takes place within the confines of a church. However, Don't Know Jack also deals honestly with the subject of a life that hasn't gone quite as planned and with one man's decision of suicide when nothing else seems to make sense.
Clarkson has dabbled in the edgier fringes of faith-based cinema before such as with his portrayal of Zach Reynolds in George Johnson's Thy Neighbor. It's hard not to picture Clarkson thinking to himself while filming Thy Neighbor "This is so close to what I want to really be doing." Indeed, the award-winning Thy Neighbor maintained its faith while telling a surprisingly edgy story, an approach that garnered the film numerous fest prizes even if the film did struggle to find the wider audience it so deserved.
However, even with Thy Neighbor it's practically undeniable that the film was still a faith-based film. It was on the fringes, yes, but it was still undeniably based within its faith.
Don't Know Jack, on the flip side, is less a faith-based film, or a Christian film, and more a film that has faith as part of its culture. This ultra-indie project is unlikely to find a wider audience, however, it's absolutely exhilarating to see Clarkson challenging himself to make a different kind of motion picture.
Clarkson gives a measured, disciplined performance as Jack, avoiding the usual histrionics so often associated with this kind of storyline and inviting us into his life at a point when it would seem as if his decision has been made. This is my favorite Clarkson performance to date. Devoid of the usual Hallmark-style ending obligations, Clarkson instead creates a character who feels more honest, authentic, and unpredictable. As the therapist in question, Ron Scott excels as a therapist who understands the weight of the challenge before him yet never leaves his assigned role while faced with both opportunity and obstacle.
Clarkson has assembled quite the fine ensemble here including the always sublime Meissa Hampton, an indie actress I've followed for quite some time who makes every motion picture she's in a better motion picture. As Jack's mother in flashback sequences, she's absolute perfection. Travis Sherwood's lensing is strong throughout the film's just shy of one-hour running time. The original score by Joel Clarkson embodies the film's emotional and intellectual rhythms.
As someone who was once kicked out of a church because of a suicide attempt, my second expulsion, I've long lamented that far too often we as Christians fail to adequately address both mental health concerns and all the life factors than can drive someone to such a point. When I needed my church the most, it ultimately failed me and I've seen the same thing again and again and again in churches and in the seats of the local movie theatres. Don't Know Jack is a step in the right direction, an honest and heartfelt story that refuses to compromise and demands authenticity all along the way. Behind a strong ensemble, Don't Know Jack is a challenging yet refreshing into what it means to be a human being in a world where faith meets trauma meets love meets loss meets so much more.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic