Title: Blue Like Jazz
Director: Steve Taylor
Starring: Marshall Allman, Claire Holt, Tania Raymonde, Justin Welborn
Offbeat and shaggy but never emotionally false or hollow, director Steve Taylor’s “Blue Like Jazz” is a precious, precocious coming-of-age story that highlights the difficulties of reconciling the manner in which one has been raised with the discovery and integration of new thoughts, ideas and belief systems. Based on Donald Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name — and adapted for the screen in a somewhat unusual but decidedly fruitful collaboration between Miller, Taylor and cinematographer Ben Pearson – the movie, a world premiere at the recent SXSW Festival, is a delightfully engaging dramedy that wrestles in a psychologically honest manner with questions so prominent in young adulthood, while also never losing its basic pulse of entertainment.
After impulsively escaping the religious fundamentalist trappings of his small Texas hometown, which he had heretofore embraced, Trinity Bible College student Don (Marshall Allman) throws caution to the wind, takes a wild road trip and enrolls at an exceedingly progressive liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. Baffled and a bit overwhelmed by both the free-spiritedness of his classmates and the university’s plethora of extracurricular activities, Don quickly makes a group of new pals, including lesbian Lauryn (Tania Raymonde, of “Lost”) and an iconoclastic party master known around campus simply as The Pope (Justin Welborn), so named because of his appointment to traditionally absolve students of their sins at the school’s notorious, semester-closing three-day bacchanal, the Renn Fayre. Don is also befriended by the socially conscious Penny (Claire Holt), upon whom he in short order develops a strong crush. But by willfully turning his back on his Christian upbringing and beliefs, is Don growing up, or merely mirroring who he thinks others want to see?
Eccentric and idiosyncratic but never really cloying or quirky in insincere ways, “Blue Like Jazz” achieves a sum even greater than the whole of its parts because it’s so suffused with humanity, and swollen with feeling. While its setting and basic narrative structure are both quite different, the movie in some ways recalls Richard Linklater’s superlative “Dazed and Confused” in its weird touches and lively energy. Director Taylor makes good use of the city of Portland and some of its bohemian personality. In one sequence, agitating-for-change students stage a costumed “robot takeover” of a local corporate-owned bookstore; another throwaway bit involves the heckling of Don in a light sprinkle of rain, when a passerby lobs the insult, “Nice umbrella!”
Taylor, Pearson, production designer Cyndi Williams and costume designer Amy Patterson also concoct a warm and winning look for the film, all on a budget. There’s a nice amount of detail and production value that suggests a rich offscreen world, and a couple imaginative animated segments help give the movie a dizzy injection of feeling too. Some literary adaptations — especially those rooted in actual personal events — suffer from too rigid a devotion to factual occurrence. “Blue Like Jazz,” however wonderfully balances the oblique with the more forthrightly dramatic.
None of this would necessarily quite matter, however, if the film’s acting weren’t so strong. Allman is a revelation, naturalistic yet entirely sympathetic, while Welborn takes his larger-than-life character — literally always dressed in a mitre and pontiff’s robes — and makes him something full-bodied and surprisingly multi-dimensional. On the big screen religious belief is often characterized in either broad or flippant strokes, especially in movies aimed at or focusing upon younger folks. In an intellectually honest way, though, “Blue Like Jazz” digs into tumultuous adolescent feelings regarding faith and its hypocrisy, and makes the point that we can all benefit from a little grand conviction and devotion in all lives.
Written by: Brent Simon