Blue Like Jazz
Director : Steve Taylor
Screenplay : Donald Miller, Ben Pearson, & Steve Taylor (story by Donald Miller; based on his book)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Marshall Allman (Donald Miller), Claire Holt (Penny), Tania Raymonde (Lauryn), Justin Wellborn (The Pope), Eric Lange (The Hobo), Jason Marsden (Kenny), Will McKinney (Jordan), Jenny Littleton (Don’s Mom)
The fact that the critics at Movieguide, the organization founded by conservative Christian media critic Ted Baehr to dissect books and movies according to their adherence to a “Biblical perspective,” don’t like Blue Like Jazz is the first sign that it is a faith-based film of some merit and one that actually has a chance of making an impact beyond the choir. Unlike evangelical Sunday School lessons disguised as movies best exemplified in the amateurish work of brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick (Courageous, Facing the Giants), Blue Like Jazz dares to confront its audience, both secular and religious, by honestly dealing with the complexities of religion, politics, and personal identity. The film is challenging, rather than dogmatic, and it seeks to invoke reflection, rather than simply sermonizing. It is by no means perfect—it spends too much time skimming the surface of its protagonist’s existential issues without fully fleshing it out—but it still effectively gets to the heart of what it means to have a crisis of faith. What narrow-minded evangelical critics miss is that there is a pointed difference in what a film depicts and what it has to say about what is depicted.
Based on the best-selling 2003 autobiographical essay collection of the same title by Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz tells a largely fictionalized version of Miller’s own faith journey, which began with him fully entrenched in his conservative Southern Baptist upbringing in Houston before rejecting Christianity entirely and departing to Reed College, a West Coast bastion of lifestyle experimentation and radical politics, before finally realizing that he can’t shake his faith and must find a way to reconcile his belief in God with his recognition of the failings of His followers. Miller’s on-screen surrogate is played by Marshall Allman, an engaging, open-faced young actor now known for his recurring role on Showtime’s vampire series True Blood. Allman plays Don as naïve and eager, which is why he is so violently shaken to learn that his religiously devout mother (Jenny Littleton) has been having an affair with the married youth pastor (Jason Marsden) with whom he works. Shocked at this multi-faceted betrayal, Don turns down an opportunity to attend a Baptist university and instead accepts an offer from his bohemian, atheist father (Eric Lange) to attend Reed.
There he is a literal fish out of water, surrounded on all sides by exactly the kind of people he had been protected from all his life (and who, in the world according to Baehr, should never show up on a movie screen). One of the first friends he makes is a politically outspoken lesbian named Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), who takes him under her wing and teaches him how not to look like he just arrived from a Southern church supper (she advises him right away to keep his Christianity in the closet, a political reversal for Don who is used to homosexuals being in the closet and the first of the film’s numerous critiques of how open-mindedness is often in the eye of the beholder). Don also finds himself drawn to a senior student (Justin Wellborn) who parades around campus in a mockery of a pope costume and revels in firebrand denunciations of just about everything, but religion in particular. Don is most drawn, however, to Penny (Claire Holt), who is just as politically active as all the other Reed students (her personal crusades are against faceless corporate entities, especially a bottled water company that exploits the Third World for profit), but has a sweetness and generosity to her. Penny has her own mind, but she wears it with less aggressiveness than either Lauryn or the Pope, thus making her the film’s model of how to engage politically and morally without tearing down others needlessly.
Much of the film’s plot has a slightly meandering quality, as Don makes his way through the landscape of Portland, Oregon, which is beset with all manner of counterculture oddities, including random people who ride around town dressed in full animal costumes, a constant barrage of political demonstrations, and an active rejection of umbrellas despite the regular rainfall. As Don becomes more comfortable in his new environs, he also becomes more comfortable in rejecting his Christian beliefs, which he does in ways that are demeaning and sometimes cruel, best evidenced in a malicious prank involving a giant condom on the steeple of a nearby Episcopalian church. The pastor’s turn-the-other-cheek response to this and several other indignities heaped on his church by Don and others presents a meaningful contrast to the shallow, superficial antics of Don’s church back home, whose hypocritical youth pastor spawned his rebellion. Thus, while Blue Like Jazz is certainly true to Donald Miller’s wary attitude toward organized religion, it rightly depicts religion as having the potential for both immense good and immense bad.
Director Steve Taylor, who began his career as a Christian singer/songwriter before shifting over to filmmaking, brings a sharp eye and acute visual sense to the film, which makes it look and feel much more expensive and polished than it actually is (when one of the film’s original financiers backed out at the last minute, the production was able to generate more than $300,000 in funds on Kickstarter, making it one of the fund-raising web sites biggest success stories). He punches it up with indie pop tunes and several humorous animated segments that feel completely of a piece with the film’s off-beat tone. The screenplay, which was penned by Miller, cinematographer Ben Pearson, and Taylor, is loose, but engaging, maintaining a fast, often funny vibe with a rhythm all its own. It helps that all the performers, most of whom are relative unknowns, are so good, and the location work at Reed College (with Vanderbilt doing some stand-in work) creates a sense of atmosphere that is crucial in developing the contrast between the two halves of Don’s life. The best thing I can say about Blue Like Jazz is that it remains true to its convictions—that faith is not a monolithic entity but rather an evolving part of one’s soul that, when authentic, may be tested and bent, but never fully broken. While Don engages in all manner of unseemly behavior at Reed and becomes, for lack of a better word, a jerk, he ultimately comes around in the end—not in a hackneyed way that tries to right all wrongs in a sermonizing manner, but rather in a way that is genuine in its messiness and lack of complete resolve. In other words, real.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Roadside Attractions