An avowedly Christian production that some arch-conservative faithful might find a trifle controversial, Steve Taylor’s film of a segment of Donald Miller’s autobiographical book (adapted by Miller and Ben Pearson along with Taylor) has some quirky verve but not enough. “Blue Like Jazz” is also unusual for the way in which it was financed—through a large number of small contributions after a major backer withdrew. But one doubts whether any of them will ever break even.
Marshall Allman plays the eighteen-year old Miller, a serious Southern Baptist kid who’s about to leave his mother’s modest Houston apartment to attend a staunchly Christian college. But when he discovers that his mom (Jenny Littleton) is having an affair with their church’s youth minister (Jason Marsden), he’s so upset that he abruptly alters his plans, instead opting for a deal arranged by his free-thinking, jazz-loving father to attend Reed College instead.
Oregon is a long way from Texas, of course, but the change is far more than geographical. Reed is one of the most progressive, free-wheeling campuses in the country, and Miller quickly succumbs to its raucous, far-out but intellectually stimulating atmosphere, falling in with blonde activist Penny (Claire Holt), self-aware lesbian Lauryn (Tania Raymonde) and a spectacularly flamboyant provocateur who dresses in ecclesiastical garb and is called the Pope (Justin Welborn). In this highly secular atmosphere Miller buries his beliefs, adopting a pose of hostility to religion that he maintains even when an old friend from home stops by for a brief visit, and that leads him to join The Pope in a juvenile prank at a local church. But in going so far he discovers that despite her apparent nonchalance in such matters, Penny is a devout Christian serious about putting her beliefs into practice, and she’s instrumental in coaxing Miller back to his faith—and a good relationship with his mother.
“Blue Like Jazz”—a title that refers to Miller’s dad telling him that in life, as in the music he loves, there are no easy resolutions—may disturb some of the devout with its portrait of a youngster falling away from his beliefs in an atmosphere of libertinism (although to be honest, the picture drawn of student life at Reed shows it as untraditional and unstructured, but hardly given to sexual excess or drug abuse). But in truth the narrative follows the tradition of an established genre of Christian literature into which one can snugly fit classics like Augustine’s “Confessions.” But it certainly does implicitly espouse a less rigid, old-fashioned brand of faith than the one Miller was brought up in back in Houston, and in that respect speaks to a desire, especially in the young, for a Christianity liberated from fire-and-brimstone, judgmental sermonizing.
But while one can applaud the desire to offer something less heavy-handed and preachy than the overtly Christian movies that have found their way to theatres in recent years, “Blue” is too mild and muddled to carry off what it aims for. That’s due partially to the risk-averse script, to Steve Taylor’s frequently lax direction, and to Allman’s amiable blandness in the lead role. The supporting cast, moreover, is only fair, with Welborn easily the standout. He may go in for obvious effect, but his dynamism brings some welcome energy to the proceedings. Technically the film shows its modest budget, with cinematography (by Ben Pearson) that gets murky at times and editing (by Matthew Sterling) that lacks rhythm. And the occasional animated inserts have a ragged look.
“Blue Like Jazz” is earnest and well-intentioned, and a relief from Christian films that make their points with sledgehammer blows. But it needed more subtlety and structure to do justice to its themes.