These days, narrative films about religion don’t leave a lot of room for gray area. You either get checkout-line preach pieces like Kirk Cameron’s Fireproof, or ultra left-wing comedies like Easy A, which defeats its own purposes by crassly bullying Christianity. Blue Like Jazz, a grassroots indie based on Donald Miller’s bestseller of the same name, doesn’t fall into either of these traps. Though directed and co-adapted by Steve Taylor, a former Christian singer whose previous film was the pastor-on-a-journey drama The Second Chance, the movie is malleable and curious, much like its protagonist, Don (Marhall Allman), a Southern Baptist who veers from his Texas-raised path to attend Portland’s über-liberal Reed College.
Blue Like Jazz charts a typical existential coming-of-age tale, yet remains atypical by being hip while also treating religion fairly. Though not deserving of too much applause for breaking ground, it feels like a rare tour of the role of God in young American culture, and it offers what may be the best possible guide: someone born and bred to bow to the cross, but ready and willing to let every other doctrine rush in.
The catalyst for Don’s deviation is his mother’s (Jenny Littleton) cradle-robbing affair with the parish youth pastor (Jason Marsden), who has a molester’s aura and wields an offensive mariachi marionette during Bible study. It’s all too much for Don, whose Christian ideals are permanently corrupted, leaving only his free-thinking father’s love of jazz as a source of wisdom (“Jazz is like life,” Dad says, “neither resolves itself”). Don arrives at Reed to find girls entering the boys’ bathroom and praising Tori Amos as a “dyke messiah”; vendors gleefully showering passersby with condoms; and an outspoken blonde, Penny (Claire Holt), swearing off the unethically produced water bottles being peddled by another coed. A reformed sponge, Don welcomes the whole alien spectacle, but quickly finds he’s a finless fish in a sea of driven minds with causes, from Penny’s assault against corporate book chains to lesbian Lauryn’s (Tania Raymonde) dedication to gay issues. Don experiments with defining pastimes like they’re drugs, and lets loose like a repressed freshman girl who frequents the boys’ dorm. It’s a quest for identity in a place where progressiveness and secular extremism permeate everything, right down to the campus’s annual Renn Fayre, which each year sees the selection of a new “Pope,” the ultimate deity-mocking mascot.
Taylor isn’t just another John Lee Hancock, whose Southern Christian values put blinders on The Blind Side. He’s an exploratory believer akin to the author whose work he translates, and he allows his insider’s perspective to lend itself to understanding instead of just preaching. His film is one of Kickstarter’s greatest success stories, netting nearly $350,000 in online donations thanks to a campaign initiated by fans of Miller’s book. There are certain details that reflect a relative lack of refinement, like close-ups on Allman’s face that reveal layers of caked-on makeup, but on the whole, the film is very visually accomplished, with handsome compositions, labored-over art direction, and constant employment of the titular hue. Taylor knows how to fade into a shot so as to best accentuate the line quality of a group of sunlit trees, and he uses the broad horizons of his setting to add quirk to his palette, including a giant spider-web net where students ensnare themselves to study, and an anything-goes array of costumed characters strutting across the quad.
The script, which Taylor co-penned with Miller and cinematographer Ben Pearson, also has a way of serving welcome idiosyncrasies, the dialogue from characters like Lauryn sounding much more convincing than the usual thrift store-bought hipster speak. The film’s great dilemma is its wandering mind, which frequently begets tangents that muddle its message. The current “Pope” (Justin Welborn), whose altar-boy past is far less revelatory than the movie believes, is positioned as a naysaying voice of atheism, but his ranting philosophies sound like hogwash, while a resolving monologue from Don calls to mind a ramblingly heady senior thesis. There’s a point where the lack of clarity seems to be working, since, after all, quarter-life theological crises are messy things. But that’s not quite enough to validate a movie’s crippled voice, and though Blue Like Jazz feels like a complete vision, it’s not exactly a coherent one.