Anything with the audacity to challenge the conventions of contemporary Christian dramas is a step in the right direction, even if Blue Like Jazz ultimately falls short.
This low-budget adaptation of the acclaimed memoir by Donald Miller tones down some of the heavy-handed proselytizing that drowns so many modern films with religious themes, yet is not compelling or provocative enough to effectively translate its progressive message for a wider audience.
The film tracks the journey of Don (Marshall Allman), a Texas college student and the product of a failed marriage, who becomes disenfranchised with his Southern Baptist upbringing and impulsively enrolls at Reed College, a tiny liberal-arts school in Portland, Ore., with a politically radical reputation.
The clash of cultures is jarring at first, turning him into an outsider, but becomes a springboard for an examination of Don’s faith as he integrates himself into the student body. Eventually, Don sheds his inhibitions and becomes part of the mischievous party crowd while using every experience to further question and shape his religious views.
It’s a coming-of-age story that seems to advocate individual spiritual choices as opposed to organized religion, arguing that there’s nothing wrong with being open-minded and incorporating the ideas of others with those you’ve been taught.
The film also has a sense of humor, and isn’t afraid to satirize both sides — namely the conservative nature of Southern Baptists and the rebellious atheism that supposedly pervades college campuses. It exaggerates reality for comic effect, although it might hit too close to home for some who won’t get the joke.
That combination might attract controversy from fundamentalists for its edgy and unconventional delivery of its Christian message. However, the screenplay by Miller and director Steve Taylor (The Second Chance) tends to lack subtlety and conviction.
Allman is charming enough in the lead role, but his character comes off as overly naïve and impressionable with regard to his beliefs. Many of the periphery characters possess the usual college-student quirks.
The approach of Blue Like Jazz falls somewhere between secular and sledgehammer, and while the concept is better than the execution, at least it’s a movie with big ideas.
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes.