In the first few moments of Blue Like Jazz, at about the time you realize you’re in a world of mirrors and uncertainty, you’re transported back in time to the end days of adolescence in the transition between high school senior somebody and college freshman nobody. It’s both exciting and deathly frightening when everything is possible and nothing is going to be the same ever again. It is this perfect introduction that endears us to young Don Miller (Marshall Allman), a Christian by proxy leaving home, church and his mother for the road, for anything college at a distance will offer. Both a welcome retreat and a source of immediate threat, self discovery and awkward spiritual questioning, the fact that Don is even less certain about his beliefs as he is about what he’s going to do with the rest of his life sets up the narrative to follow. We believe him, we are him – we want to follow. Equal parts coming of age and know thyself be true cautionary tale (sort of), Blue Like Jazz is refreshing in its willingness to stop and pause in dialog and innuendo, meander while opposite sexes talk about everything but sex yet still end up in bed together. It is this fearless sense of story that gives the film a heart and a soul, a way in, a reason to care.
Blue Like Jazz is well written and directed with care by Steve Taylor, adapted from a book by Donald Miller. Much of what takes place after leaving home for college but long before the inevitable return, is a series of interlocking slice of life moments, tiny revelations that find and inform Don’s quest for meaning, sexuality, spiritual purpose – along with getting laid. If it wanders into real life confessional, post MTV’s the Real World sit down and spill your soul, it’s not without merit, good for laughs and pondering – isn’t situational familiar fun? If the Reed College campus life of a fictional Oregon landscape borders on progressively unrealistic or worse – judgmental of the judgment makers – it is mostly in a non-judgmental sort of way. Mostly it is self-serving but illustrative nevertheless of the winds of change that blows so very hard in stories about the “life on the road” of a Jack Kerouac novel. Through it all, Taylor ensures poignant connect-the-dot scenarios, from the curious and flawless lesbian roommate to the horrors of childhood angry class clown destined for a heart to heart sit down to put all the ills of growing up into perspective, resolvable in 90 minutes at a time of verisimilitude. Where films like Juno appeal to broad audiences, in part due to the charms of Ellen Page and a smart script that never fully submerges in the taboo of the material, films like this steer closer to the fire, burn a little in effigy, but do so with intention without resorting to WWJD. Clever departure or familiar territory, this film rewards indiscriminately, wounded and empowered – no one walks away unscathed and neither should you.
It’s easy to miss the grassy greens of troubled relationships born of shared love, loss and experimentation for the overt melodrama of the spiritually curious and faith-challenged, but it’s hardly challenging to embrace, forgive a little and share. The fact that we’ve been to small town wandering with big town rewards, or vice versa is enough to center our attention – will Don find his god amid the godless or is god just another take on being, believing or opting opt? The novel from which the film is (loosely) based is there to fall back on, should you need to know, but most of all Blue Like Jazz handles Christian values and the perpetual quest for salvation with poise, neither too much to stand on or too little to feel unnecessarily trite in handling. The fact that religion and faith play such an important part of the story feels almost secondary to the real, tangible relationships happening; if not, god is a close second but hardly ever in the way of your own religious presupposition. Funny and at times serious comedy, the film is a welcome respite from the ills of Hollywood sameness and bubble gum movie inbreeding – get away from it all, even write ups trying to capture fleeting, because we’re all dreaming in familiar territory and sometimes they make this much sense with purpose and consequences.