As the gaudy grosses of Courageous, Fireproof, and the recent anti-abortion heart-tugger October Baby indelibly illustrate, there are vast fortunes to be made preaching shamelessly to the converted in the most histrionic, melodramatic manner possible. Attempting to reach hearts and minds through a more subtle, nuanced approach is a much trickier proposition from a commercial standpoint. Accordingly, Blue Like Jazz, a surprisingly nuanced, even-handed and ingratiatingly ambiguous adaptation of Donald Miller’s semiautobiographical book about a young man’s disillusionment and rapprochement with his Christian beliefs during a mind-opening, life-changing stint at the hippie utopia Reed College, was financed partially through crowd-sourcing powerhouse Kickstarter, even though it’s based on a bestselling book that has sold around a million and a half copies. Like its protagonist, it risks being caught between worlds.
Marshall Allman stars as Miller’s surrogate, a devout young Southern Baptist who impulsively decides to go to Reed College at the behest of his iconoclastic deadbeat father rather than follow his faith and matriculate at a Christian college. At Reed, Allman loses himself and his religion in a free-thinking campus environment. His fellow students seem to view college primarily as a giant, open-ended, anti-capitalist, anti-conformist performance-art piece, with brief intervals of studying thrown in for good measure.
At its best, Blue Like Jazz captures the exhilarating sense of possibility that comes with throwing off the shackles of dogma and repression and embracing the diversity and eccentricity of life in all its Technicolor richness, but it’s ultimately a Christian film, so all roads eventually lead back to Jesus. Blue Like Jazz makes a virtue of open-mindedness. It’s affectionate and unexpectedly sophisticated in its depiction of bohemian college life, even as Allman’s arc from bitter disillusionment with his faith and the hypocrites that corrupt it to Zen acceptance of Christianity’s faults feels a little rushed, and his relationship with a good Christian girl (Claire Holt) remains underdeveloped. Blue Like Jazz tips its hand at the end, but until then, it’s a glorious anomaly: a subtle, sophisticated, open-minded, and courageously non-judgmental Christian film even non-believers can enjoy. Hallelujah!