The movies haven't shown much grace in recent decades when dealing with matters of faith. Hollywood steers clear of the subject altogether, and faith-based filmmakers tend to eschew reality to avoid letting their movies become too edgy. Blue Like Jazz is an occasionally witty, generally thoughtful attempt to bridge that chasm.
A Texas kid, raised Southern Baptist by his myopic divorced mom (Jenny Littleton), is sent to an ultra-liberal, free-spirit college by his free-spirit dad. He exchanges one closed-off worldview for another, not that he comes right out and proclaims that revelation.
Donny Miller (Marshall Allman) is assistant youth pastor at this church, a devoted son. He pitches in with all-night "lock-in" parties for teens, tolerant of the hints of intolerance in this flock, set to go to a Christian college, following God's (well, Mom's) plan.
But his dad, whom he calls The Hobo (Eric Lange), an irresponsible trailer dweller, mutters, "A brain like that, working for a church?" He challenges Donny to break free of the influence of people "afraid to hang out with people who don't think like they do." He gets Donny into liberal Reed College in liberal Portland, Ore.
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"Life is like jazz, son," The Hobo counsels. "It never resolves. Improvise your own damn story."
If Donny's church is a light parody of a Southern Baptist congregation, Reed College is a broad caricature of a liberal arts education. Everybody has a cause, there are coed dorms, coed toilets, "Lamaze for non-mothers," a marching band in diapers. The one thing this ultra- tolerant student body seems not to tolerate is Christianity. "Get in the closet, Baptist boy," he is told.
Donny is exposed to a lesbian (Tania Raymonde), raves and a designated student "pope" (Justin Welborn) who stomps around burning books, railing against religion in full papal regalia.
Donny has turned his back on home and Christianity, and he has swung in the opposite direction. But he's "lost in a sea of individuality" and needs to find his center and his place. And maybe a cute girl (Claire Holt) who challenges him in ways he doesn't expect.
Blue Like Jazz, based on a book by the real Donald Miller about his spiritual journey, is an ambling movie that skates on the surface of a lot of deep thoughts. The jazz metaphor is no deeper than The Hobo's insistence that Donny have his John Coltrane LP collection. Like Donny himself, the film puffs itself up as substantial when all it's aiming for is glib, snarky and shallow. Donny wants to be a writer, so the film is structured like a junior college writer's seminar, ineptly built around bullet points for "setting, conflict, climax and resolution."
Many lines are funny, but the accents are hit-or-miss.
It's well shot and well edited, and the lines — "I'm trying not to picture you burning flags at a gay soldier's funeral" and a bumper sticker that says "Abstinence makes the Church grow fondlers" — land laughs. But like The Hobo's definition of jazz, Blue Like Jazz never resolves itself. It's a meandering medley of disconnected solos, intent on avoiding predictability or a conclusion.