Blue Like Jazz is based on The New York Times bestselling book of the same name written by Donald Miller. The film becomes a loosely autobiographical account of his journey from growing up in a highly conservative, religious home, to going to one of the most liberal colleges in the country, and the crisis of faith he encountered along the way.
The journey to college is, for many, about much more than the physical leaving of home. Independence of space also brings with it the much more interesting prospect of freedom of thought. Some will find this a welcome change from an overprotective family dynamic – where your thoughts and identity can sometimes feel predetermined for you – running headlong in the opposite direction of reckless experimentation and discovery. Others will feel they don’t have much to rebel from and use the experience to reaffirm who they already believed themselves to be. Many others are a bit of both. They explore and wander, searching for some previously unknown “other”, and take a long, circuitous journey back to perhaps a more enlightened and battle-tested version of their previous self.
Such is the story of Don Miller (Marshall Allman) in Blue Like Jazz. The hook is that his upbringing was in a sheltered, and very conservative Christian setting. His life was his church, and his experience outside of that world was minimal. Growing up with his single mother in churchianity was at odds with the time he spent with his often estranged and journeyman-like father. When it comes time for graduation, Don is all set to continue his life in a largely conservative Christian college. However, his Dad tries to encourage him to expand his horizons in a more liberal arts setting, going so far as to enroll him behind his back into Reed College in Portland.
Initially Don dismisses this idea out of hand. But after discovering a disturbing turn of events that thoroughly cracks his image of his sheltered upbringing, he decides to get as far away from it as he can and accepts the challenge to attend Reed. There he finds a culture almost at the other end of the spectrum from his rearing: a counter-culture, liberal worldview that is accepting of almost everything except for his religious upbringing. Don dives headlong into this new world, actively rebelling against everything he previously believed. Befriended by Lauryn (Tania Raymonde, Lost), his new lesbian tour guide in this brave new world, and anarchist Reed mascot The Pope (Justin Welborn), Don quickly embraces everything he had never known. That is, until he meets Penny (Claire Holt), who becomes both a love interest and a touchstone back to part of his older self that is quickly becoming lost. Somewhere in between Reed College and Penny, Don navigates the journey of faith that so many find themselves in during college.
There are two aspects to Blue Like Jazz that make it tricky fare for a movie. The first is its focus on faith. Generally, movies approach this subject in one of two ways: either to dismiss or caricature its adherents, or to make them unrealistic heroes in something much closer to a Hallmark special. And right there, I just dismissed and caricatured a genre of movies (mea culpa). But that’s the challenge with film, is that we have so few examples of people genuinely wrestling with the subject of faith and belief in a realistic setting. Blue Like Jazz at least strives to find that balance, where realism and earnestness intersect. Don’s journey is messy, and involves a lot of language and settings that, quite frankly, will not play well in the conservative Christian crowds of his backstory. And on the flipside, he genuinely wrestles with his faith, asking and fielding the tough questions about God and belief that most people struggle with at some point. His is no longer a cloistered belief system untouched by the realities of history and modern thought. It’s more of a painful cut on an increasingly tender wound.
But the other aspect of Blue Like Jazz is that it’s based on a book. And although normally that yields more than ample fodder for a film, here it seems to have yielded too little. The main issue is that the book isn’t really a single narrative, or at least the kind that would normally service a script. It’s more of a journal, some of which contains stories from a similar life and character, but just at often its populated with musings and reflections on the state of belief in America. And while it yields the potential for a good character, it is often under-realized in this particular film.