If you're looking to avoid the "Christian Movie" label, one way to do it is include a scene where a lesbian feminist uses a urinal. Another is to approach your craft like an artist, not a well-intentioned youth group. With his Nashville-shot coming-of-age story Blue Like Jazz, based on Donald Miller's best-seller, director Steve Taylor employs both. At its best, Blue Like Jazz is a likably quirky indie that offers wit, zest and energy in place of heavy-handed platitudes. At other times, not unlike its protagonist, it tries so hard to sidestep the pitfalls of faith-based entertainment that it sometimes stumbles.
The movie arrives bearing a lot of fond hopes. As a college freshman, I found in Miller's book of personal essays a significant "me too" from a writer I already admired. Moreover, I covered the film and the remarkable movement to save it for the Scene ("How a twist of fortune, a confetti cannon and a large rabbit helped save the movie version of Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz," Nov. 24, 2010). Miller and Taylor are easy guys to root for, and like those who contributed to the movie's now-legendary Kickstarter campaign, I've been rooting for Blue Like Jazz for a long time.
Taylor's film mostly rewards those hopes. Made up of anecdotes from the book's autobiographical essays, combined with fictional elements to make the narrative more compelling — a necessity that inspired Miller's 2009 book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life — it tells the story of Don (True Blood's Marshall Allman), a Texas teen with a job as an assistant youth pastor and ambitions of attending a modest junior college. When he discovers his mother is sleeping with his church superior, he abruptly changes plans, leaves behind his Christian surroundings and bolts out West.
That leads him to reckless, godless Reed College, a Portlandian buffet of super-sized liberal archetypes. There, Don finds his beliefs challenged by three new acquaintances: the activist Penny (Claire Holt); the aforementioned lesbian, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde); and an outspoken atheist who is also the campus's ironic Pope (Justin Welborn). Yet as much as Don endeavors not to be "the Christian guy" to his new friends, he can't help but realize that's who he is.
That could have made for a preachy and obnoxiously self-righteous movie, and to its makers' credit, Blue Like Jazz is neither of those things. The movie succeeds where so many faith-based movies fail — i.e., as a movie. The cinematography and acting are solid, and for all the messages the film has to deliver (among them that it's sometimes Christians who turn people away from Christ) it's more interested in quality than in sounding an altar call.
If anything, though, Blue Like Jazz is occasionally guilty of overcompensating, trying so earnestly to avoid the family-friendly norm that some sexual references and curse words feel forced. Miller's self-deprecating and casually insightful voice is recognizable at times, but not often enough. Fans of the book will recognize several of the author's amusing tangents, included here in the form of animated sequences that the film probably could have done without.
But the biggest problem with adapting Blue Like Jazz is no fault of the filmmakers. While Miller's spiritual struggles and ruminations resonate on the page, on film a college student's existential crisis often appears as little more than middle-class privilege. As a result, it's hard not to see these characters' spiritual and social dilemmas as middling First World Problems. But the filmmakers could argue, with justification, that faith, love and learning are issues for people the world over — one reason Miller's book struck a chord with so many, and a source of many of the movie's most affecting moments.
Give Taylor, Miller, co-screenwriter Ben Pearson and the able cast and crew credit for a number of delightful set pieces — the best of which involves a student group robot-invading a corporate bookstore. Despite its flaws, Blue Like Jazz raises the bar for movies that deal directly and unapologetically with living as a Christian — even if, over the protests of its creators, it will most likely find shelf space in the section it seeks to escape.