Just as Donald Miller’s bestselling 2003 memoir sought to redefine Christianity for a hipper, looser generation of believers, so this likably low-key adaptation of “Blue Like Jazz” tries to deviate from the earnest, preachy norms of so much faith-based cinema. Narrowing their focus to Miller’s college years, the filmmakers have dialed down the introspection and beefed up the narrative in ways both necessary and unnecessary, to mostly engaging if somewhat fuzzy-headed effect. Before it begins eternal life in ancillary, pic could capitalize on grassroots campaigning and church-fueled word of mouth, while its potential appeal to the uninitiated shouldn’t be overlooked.
Set for an April 13 release through Roadside Attractions, which acquired the pic before its SXSW premiere, “Blue Like Jazz” is already the beneficiary of a successful fund-raising drive, having amassed more than $300,000 in online donations when an important investor backed out. The show of support bodes well for a youth-skewing project that merits continued visibility, if for no other reason than because it so little resembles the artistically square family dramas, like “Courageous” and “Fireproof,” which tend to dominate the faith-based market.
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Predicated on the notion that life, like jazz music, doesn’t neatly resolve, Miller’s personal, anecdotal essays have been widely embraced by Christians who, put off by the perceived rigidity and political conservatism of the traditional church, have struggled to reconcile biblical teachings with the complexities of a postmodern world. This hate-religion-but-love-Jesus approach has earned Miller plenty of knocks for favoring a cool, trendy worldview over theological rigor, and it similarly drives this heavily fictionalized adaptation (written by Miller with director-producer Steve Taylor and d.p. Ben Pearson), which tackles the formative stage of the author’s consciousness.
The child of a conservative Texas upbringing, smart, well-adjusted Don (Marshall Allman) is active in his church and planning to attend a local junior college. Yet he pulls a dramatic 180 when, in the script’s most ridiculous and misguided formulation, he learns his single mom (Jenny Littleton) is having an affair with his youth pastor (Jason Marsden). Disillusioned, Don packs his bags and moves to Portland, Ore., where he enrolls at Reed College, one of the most liberal schools in the nation.
His fellow students include cute activist Penny (Claire Holt), wry lesbian Lauryn (Tania Raymonde) and a campus celebrity known as the Pope (Justin Welborn), an outspoken atheist clad in ironic papal garb. All mildly tolerate but eventually come to like this slightly dweeby Texan, though Lauryn warns him to keep his Bible Belt background under wraps. Don seems all too willing to do just that as he plunges into the college experience, openly mocking religion in class and at one point participating in a prank involving some modest defacement of church property. As he eventually learns, his deeds have unexpected consequences in a place where God is not as absent as he thought.
A Christian recording artist who made his helming debut with 2006’s church-conflict drama “The Second Chance,” Taylor is occasionally too on-the-nose in the way he nudges the characters toward serious, God-focused dialogue, but he mercifully avoids doling out resolutions with too heavy a hand. Still, the book’s admirers may be disappointed that relatively little of Miller’s voice — by turns glib, amusing, self-conscious and insightful — has made it to the screen in this pleasantly unremarkable coming-of-ager.
The blandly likable Allman is too recessive a presence here to provide much of a psychological anchor, though he does capture Don’s questioning, open-minded posture as he figures out his path in life. Holt, Raymonde and especially Welborn are all alert and engaged, in key secondary roles.
The film’s evocation of campus craziness, with its book-burnings and anti-corporate flash mobs, at times suggests an outsider’s naively quirky idea of liberal education, even if Miller did experience it firsthand. For all its references to the intellectually, socially and sexually uninhibited nature of life at Reed, “Blue Like Jazz” remains as tame in its presentation as its target audience would expect. Students drink beers on occasion, but no one is shown having sex, taking mind-altering substances or using language that would jeopardize a PG-13 rating.
On the plus side, the film also abstains from any overt message-mongering; if it has a lesson to impart, it’s that spiritual transformation begins from a place of inward-looking humility, of owning one’s own shortcomings before decrying anyone else’s.
The budgetary restrictions are plain to see in the serviceable tech package, which uses rudimentary animation and graphics to visualize Don’s occasional flights of fancy; some syncing glitches were detectable in the sound mix at the screening attended. Score is marked by occasionally wry flourishes in lieu of the Christian pop-heavy soundtrack typical of much faith-based fare.