Blue Like Jazz is so much better than your average faith-based movie that it’s tempting to overrate it. On that sliding scale, you could probably add at least a half-star to my ranking, and maybe even a full one—though that seems extreme. I will say, however, that I actually kind of enjoyed long stretches of Blue Like Jazz. This was more the case while I was watching it than when I actually stopped to think about it a little, and had time to consider what worked and what didn’t. The film has good intentions, and seemed like it was made by folks who are actually interested in filmmaking. But not slipping into being preachy will only get you so far. Admittedly, that’s still a lot further than your standard issue faith-based film, but it’s not going to turn your movie into Citizen Kane.
The story here is that Don (Marshall Allman) is a squeaky-clean Southern Baptist boy who’s about to go to some Bible college (that people are warning him has gotten awfully liberal). Everything is going according to plan until he has a crisis of faith after learning that his divorcee mom (Jenny Littlejohn) is having an affair with sleazy—and married—youth minister Kenny (Jason Marsden). At this point, he suddenly opts to take up his semi-estranged libertine dad’s (Eric Lange) offer to go to the very liberal Reed College in Portland, Ore. (Since this is all based on a memoir by Donald Miller, and the whole mom/minister thing appears to be fictional, I’m somewhat curious what the real motivations for his move were.)
Once in Portland, he’s subjected to a wide array of movie-kooky students, who in various ways start to change his worldview. Chief among these are Lauryn the helpful lesbian (Tania Raymonde), a guy with papal fashion sense called The Pope (Justin Welborn), and political activist Penny (Claire Holt). Since Penny is far and away the least interesting of the trio, it naturally follows that she’ll end up as the romantic interest, which might be for the best. Lauryn and The Pope are the best characters in the film—and that, unfortunately, includes the blandly likable Don, who ought to be the best character since he’s the focus of the film. Lauryn, in fact, offers him the advice that it might be in his best interests to keep his Christianity in the closet if he wants to fit in—and that pretty much is what drives the plot. The rest of the characters are mostly colorful background, which tends to make the whole student body look cartoonish, and the film too often feels like a seriously cleaned-up version of The Rules of Attraction (2002).
The idea that’s being explored here is that Don’s just traded one hypocrisy-ridden group for another where it’s necessary to pretend to have no religious beliefs. This only becomes clear when we learn that Penny is herself a closet Christian. And there’s some validity to all this as a concept, but the film refuses to examine the immense gulf between the fundamentalist religion of Don’s past and Penny’s association with what appears to be an Episcopal (or possibly Lutheran) church. Of course, being the type of movie it is, Blue Like Jazz is only setting up Don’s crisis of faith in order to have him come around in the end. In its favor, however, the film’s savvy enough to present this as a kind of changed—and nonjudgmental—faith. Plus, the final scene between Don and The Pope is pretty nicely handled without slipping into the overtly preachy.
The movie goes down smoothly enough. The dialogue is often snappy, and there’s certainly more sense of filmmaking style here than in any faith-based offering I’ve ever encountered. I ended up feeling that co-writer/director Steve Taylor was a Christian filmmaker rather than a Christian who decided to make a movie without any real interest in movies. There’s a pretty big difference. There are problems, sure, and I’m less than delighted by the apparent spamming of the IMDb user reviews by about 60 first-time “reviewers,” but overall the film itself is a big step forward for faith-based filmmaking. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexuality, drug and alcohol content, and some language.