College, quirks in fair portrayal
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Apr. 13, 2012
"If you're going to have an existential crisis, Portland in winter is hard to beat."
So says the hero of "Blue Like Jazz," a small fish-out-of-water tale about a nice boy from Texas who finds himself at Reed College, that bastion of godless liberalism in the Pacific Northwest, after transferring from a Southern Baptist school near his home town.
It's an apt comment. Made famous by the cable sketch comedy show "Portlandia," the Oregon town where the movie is set - and which is itself almost another character in the film - is a hotbed of earnest secular humanism, made all the more cinematic by the heavy rainfall and aura of hipster gloom.
Based on Donald Miller's 2003 book of autobiographical essays, "Blue Like Jazz" follows a year in the life of Donny (Marshall Allman), an assistant youth minister whose faith is shaken after learning of his mother's (Jenny Littleton) affair with a church worker (Jason Marsden). The movie is the story of Donny's pendulum swing away from faith and Bible Belt culture - and of what happens when he gets so far off center that he loses sight of himself.
It is - somewhat surprisingly, given the heavy-handed subject - neither sanctimonious nor preachy. The handful of characters in it who are believers behave, for the most, with an easygoing confidence in their faith. There is no religious bullying - except maybe from the atheists, who come across as the kind of wayward, cynical jerks that some of us turned into, briefly, in college. They're strident at times - which makes the self-assurance of the devout minority all the more remarkable - but they're generally harmless. And, most important, they're young.
As Donny, Allman makes a strong and instantly likeable hero, heading a cast of young actors who bring a believably collegiate energy - insecurity masquerading as bluster - to the film. Particularly good are Tania Raymonde as Donny's streetwise lesbian confidant, Lauryn; Justin Welborn as a wacky, loudmouthed senior known as the Pope (who walks around campus in full papal regalia); and Claire Holt as Penny, Donny's love interest, who nudges him back toward the center.
Director Steve Taylor, who co-wrote the script with Miller and Ben Pearson, gets the atmosphere of intellectual curiosity mixed with know-it-all-all-ness just right. Those familiar with Reed College will also be pleased with its depiction, down to the annual spring Renn Fayre bacchanal and the "scrounge table," a corner of the dining hall where students not on the meal plan can eat other kids' leftovers for free. Without being parodistic, it manages to poke fun at the air of privilege and strenuous political correctness common to lefty, liberal arts schools, while retaining a certain affection for their heartfelt quirks.
In general, that's true of the film's attitude toward its characters too. Penny is squeaky clean, but she's no saint. And the Pope, while a jerk, is shown to be more damaged than damnable.
Donny, somewhere in the middle, is a good evangelist for the message of the film and the book, which has more to do with one man's search for meaning than with all men's salvation.
It sounds corny, but it is a message that's worth getting out there. Which may be why, in the end, the film was able to sidestep traditional fundraising channels, earning nearly $350,000 in production costs - donated by about 4,500 "associate producers" - through an online Kickstarter campaign.
Contains mild obscenity, sexual dialogue, drug use and underage drinking.