"Blue Like Jazz" soft-pedals its Christian theme, but not the message of hope it offers to would-be filmmakers: Publicists proudly point out that the movie was launched with $345,000 in contributions raised in 30 days on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website. The response was so impressive that an investor matched the amount and then some, for a shooting and post-production budget of about $1.25 million.
Of course, in terms of fan support, it helped that "Blue Like Jazz" was inspired by a semi-autobiographical best seller of the same name by Donald Miller, an author with a devoted following among young-adult Christians disenchanted with the denominational and hierarchical divisions of traditionally structured churches.
The second feature film directed by longtime Christian recording artist Steve Taylor, "Blue Like Jazz" casts Marshall Allman (the creepy shapeshifter Tommy on "True Blood") as young Donald Miller, a disillusioned Southern Baptist who bypasses Bible school for the bi-curious campus of Portland, Ore.'s Reed College, a liberal-arts institution of unisex bathrooms, free condoms and P.C. activism.
Befriended by an exotic lesbian (Tania Raymonde, a star of the recent made-in-Memphis "Losers Take All") and a blond do-gooder (Claire Holt, of "The Vampire Diaries"), the virginal Donald is understandably excited, but he also feels "lost in a sea of individuality." Ashamed of his unfashionable jones for Jesus, Donald hides his Baptist roots, even as he notes the approved campus presence of such alternative religious groups as "S&M Wiccans" and "Jews for Jihad."
Shot in Nashville and Portland and distributed by mainstream indie Roadside Attractions (rather than by a Christian company like Provident Films), "Blue Like Jazz" is the most entertaining and least in-your-face "spiritual" of the recent spate of "faith-based" films. Unlike others in the category, it lacks a down-on-your-knees come-to-Jesus moment, presenting its young hero as a conflicted Everyman with the same questions about "the human dilemma" as any sensitive college freshman; as such, it's a good choice for a field trip for progressive church youth groups.
The movie tries a little too hard, however. Overscripted and over-"fun," at times it's as slick and calculated as any godless-teen campus comedy-romance, complete with a wacky clothes-shopping montage and an inexplicable animated bit in which Donald imagines himself to be a large rabbit, chasing a motorcycle-riding "female" carrot with breasts. This glimpse into Miller's mind is not so much WWJD as TMI.
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexuality, drug and alcohol content, and language.
(John Beifuss writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. His movie blog is www.TheBloodshotEye.com. Email beifuss(at)commercialappeal.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)