Donald Miller’s best-selling memoir Blue Like Jazz has made it to the big screen, thanks to many, many individuals. Miller and director Steve Taylor couldn’t get the film made the conventional way, so they began a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project, a fictionalized version of the book.
The movie’s Don Miller, a conservative Baptist youth from Texas, transfers from his junior college in Texas to Reed College in Portland, Ore., after his church and his mother have disappointed him. There he plunges into the party scene with abandon. Reed College is a proud bastion of free thinking and intellectualism, unencumbered by traditional expectations and cultural norms.
In the movie version, Reed comes off as a Bacchanalian playground—the parties go on and on, but somehow students still show up for class with the ability to speak intelligently. In their desire to make sure viewers understand the different world Miller is facing, the moviemakers risk making caricatures of both the campus and Miller himself. And sometimes they do.
Actor Marshall Allman’s Miller is likeable and unimposing. He exudes a sort of nice-guy, gee-whiz wonder while still expressing his anger. However, he transitions more quickly than seems possible, becoming fast friends with a young woman exploring her sexual orientation as well as an atheist who has been elected the “pope” of the college. He also meets Penny, the strongest, most focused, and most appealing character—and the only one at Reed who’s identified as a Christian.
The film’s content includes much that might offend viewers: strong language, sexual frankness, substance abuse, and conversations that take a dim view of God. Comedy often takes the forefront, sometimes enriching the story and sometimes weakening it.
Taylor adds surreal illustrations: astronauts allude to isolation, a rabbit chasing a carrot is shorthand for hedonism. When leaving home, Miller takes along the plastic pieces of spiritual armor he wore in a church skit, things that have no place at Reed. Later in the movie, his dirty rags go straight into the washing machine.
In the end the film feels too small. The Reed community seems to be made up of too few people. They are portrayed as character types—the atheist, the lesbian, the Russian intellectual—rather than real people.
The final, redemptive moments are the most effective in the film. Miller finds a way to apologize to his fellow students for the ways that the established church has hurt them, a theme germane to the story. He reminds one young man that God is not like the people who represent him. In this way, the movie is a reminder to the church at large to be humble and confessional for the myriad ways we fail to model the love of our Savior. Ultimately, the grace of the cross is unspoken, but Jesus is present, and the movie engages the audience in the difficulty and mystery of belief. (Ruckus Films)