A low-budget independent film by a sophomore director seeks to break every rule for so-called “Christian” films and instead make a compelling, realistic story about faith. Despite a few not-so-glaring flaws, the 2012 film Blue Like Jazz rings true, is superbly engaging and has opened several doors for future filmmakers in the process.
Based loosely on Donald Miller’s 2003 book of the same name, an anecdotal series of reflections on Christian spirituality, the film almost didn’t happen due to lack of interest from Christian film producers (fans of the book came to the rescue in a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign). The material contains a portrayal of life on a real college campus, which anyone who has been to college can attest is never G-rated. The lead character Don (Marshall Allman), who takes elements from Donald Miller’s personality and story but is mostly non-biographical, moves from a strongly Southern Baptist Texas environment to Reed College, a highly liberal college in Portland, Oregon. His experiences adjusting to the culture shift, as well as increasing disillusionment with his home environment and family, create a crisis of faith that propels much of the film.
The film doesn’t seek to give all the answers, and it certainly doesn’t. What it does is to tell how messy searching out one’s identity is, especially our faith identity. For Christians, there are times and situations that really make us doubt, question, and even reject God. There are times and situations that plunge us into a dark night of the soul. Moreover, there are situations within the church that cut us so deep it is hard to recover. I can rattle off a dozen situations easily where the sinful behavior within churches has caused certain individuals to separate themselves from Christianity, either for a time or for good. Because of this, particular moments within the film hit me with a particular sting.
In critiquing the actions of some Christians, the film certainly does not glorify the liberal environment, either. The character called “The Pope” represents all that is good and downright sad about nihilistic hedonism. On the other hand, the character of Penny (Claire Holt) represents all that is seemingly good and hopeful about really living out our faith. Both characters may seem to present, at times, oversimplified archetypes of their chosen lifestyles, and yet both characters are also very recognizable to me in individuals I have known myself.
As films go, Blue Like Jazz is not a masterpiece. The production is a little shaky at times, largely due to the small budget and the fact that this is only Steve Taylor’s second time directing a feature film (his first, The Second Chance, also has many commendable traits, though is leagues behind this in most aspects). There is some unnecessary animation early on that is more distracting that propelling to the storyline. Some supporting characters are dying to be fleshed out more than they end up being. However, perhaps the reason we wish to have more information on the characters is that what we do see of them is entirely compelling. Allman, Wellborn, and Holt (among others) give their characters the dedication and heart it takes to make a story about a spiritual journey believable. Allman is perfectly cast as the searching Don. Wellborn’s Pope embodies the extrovert covering his inner pain. Holt’s Penny is the warm light in the darkness who, by the end of the film, I wish I could pull off the screen and marry.
At the beginning of the film, Don’s estranged father tells him that life is like jazz, which never resolves. However, by the end, Don realizes (as he listens to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, one of the greatest jazz albums of all times in the film’s opinion and mine), that jazz does resolve. The film resolves, too, although not in all aspects. While Don begins to reconcile with his faith, family, and friendships, we’re not sure what will happen from here. This is a part of the journey, the part we see at the present. Like life, we don’t see it all now. We see little vignettes of the story, but we’ll never have the full picture in this life. Perhaps, in that aspect, Blue Like Jazz is most relatable of all.
(Disclaimer: I did invest a small donation in this film during its pre-production Kickstarter campaign.)