After learning his mother is having an affair, a Christian university student from Texas leaves his evangelical family and escapes to a new way of life in Portland.
In the last few years, faith-based cinema has made a comeback of sorts with audiences in America’s heartland, most palatably with Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side but also with passion projects like Fireproof, Soul Surfer and The Secrets of Jonathon Sperry. Oh, and that Mel Gibson fire-and-brimstone fun ride, too"¦
Taylor’s touch is workmanlike, his directorial flourishes rather too insipid
Blue Like Jazz, director Steve Taylor’s college campus Christian tale adapted by author Donald Miller from his 2003 bestseller, finds a rather too anaemic middle ground in its treatment of issues of faith in the modern world. The film purports to relate the experience of a young man determined to test his beliefs in the moral maelstrom of tertiary education, though it pulls its punches in its depiction of the 'radical’ personalities and issues that challenge the lead character.
True Blood’s Marshall Allman plays Don, a Texan Baptist twenty-something determined to redefine his own set of values after he discovers his mum (Jenny Littleton) is having an affair with the local youth minister (a cartoonish, creepy Jason Marsden, who uses a marionette puppet to talk with his flock). Greatly influenced by the free-spirited nature of the jazz music favoured by his father, he radically changes his planned life course and heads for the real-world Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Once on campus, he soon discovers such tell-tale definers of debauchery as condoms, beer, activism and lesbians. Allman’s Don offers a bland, milquetoast characterisation that makes it difficult to fathom why he registers with the likes of Claire Holt’s amped-up flannel-wearing homosexual crusader or Justin Wellborn’s atheist (offering some obvious symbolism in his faux papal garb). Nevertheless, Don is soon part of both the group’s shenanigans and their spiritual growth.
Taylor was a top-selling gospel recording artist before turning his hand to directing with the well-received conflicted priest drama, The Second Chance (2006). His impassioned fanbase, along with readers enriched by Miller’s tome, drove the production of the film with a Kickstarter campaign that netted an astonishing US$350,000, the highest ever amount of funds generated on the site (276 percent above the goal total). Its pedigree earned it a premiere slot at the 2012 South-by-Southwest Film Festival, which makes the muddled, uneven narrative just that little bit more disappointing. The film has streamlined much of Miller’s original work – a collection of free-form essays – and excised whatever was clearly central to the essence of Don’s journey, whose voice and presence in film form is simply uninspiring, especially in a teary, earnest third-act confession booth realisation that strains vainly for effect. Taylor’s touch is workmanlike, his directorial flourishes rather too insipid; staring at a starry night sky while discussing greater meaning is a familiar image to many but proves none too engaging here.
Blue Like Jazz certainly breaks the mould in terms what audiences have come to expect from spiritual cinema, but it refuses to take the necessary leap required to fully redefine mainstream audiences’ perception of this niche genre.