Film Review: Blue Like Jazz

School days have never been wilder onscreen than in this vividly entertaining and funny clash between a young Christian’s sensibilities and the ultimate radicalization into which he is seduced.

Devout Southern Baptist Texas boy Don (Marshall Allman) is dismayed when he discovers that his estranged deadbeat dad (Eric Lange) has secretly decided to finally “support” him by enrolling him in ultra-liberal Reed College in left-of-center Portland, Oregon, rather than the religious institute he had his heart set on. Don’s scholastic disappointment is more than matched by that he feels toward his mother (Jenny Littleton), whom he discovers is sleeping with his parish’s oily youth pastor (Jason Marsden).

Reed College has a completely freewheeling atmosphere, like a Fellini circus as envisioned by Timothy Leary, which greets him when he arrives on campus and is befriended by a brash lesbian, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), he encounters in the unisex bathroom, as well as the “Pope” (Justin Welborn), a total freak who dresses in clerical finery and rules campus subversiveness. Don soon drinks the academic Kool-Aid, getting high, partying like a maniac and involving himself in wacky acts of civil disobedience like protests against bookstore chains and exploitatively produced water bottles, the latter driven by his love of nubile rebel student Penny (Claire Holt), whom he clumsily courts.

Based on the best-seller by Donald Miller (who co-adapted the screenplay) and partially funded by online donations from fans, Steve Taylor’s film is an invigoratingly entertaining college farce, which is also a fit contribution to the burgeoning group of admirable religious-based films like Higher Ground and The Wise Kids. Miller’s comic writing, wry yet juicy, has a wonderful alertness and the film resounds with good zinging lines, like Lauryn warning Don to “get in the closet, Baptist boy, and stay there, or you won’t stick around long enough to unpack your secret underwear.” Organized religion, as epitomized by that horny pastor with his corny racist marionette shows for the kids, also comes in for its share of deservedly funny putdowns (“Absence makes the church grow fondlers”). On an obviously limited budget, Taylor nevertheless creates a marvelously rebellious utopian universe in Reed College, with its “Scroungeteria” where students blithely munch on leftovers and its electives like “Jews for Jihad.” He also makes it quite a magically lovely place with its rain-swept, picturesque bridge out of Monet, fetchingly photographed by Ben Pearson.

Allman makes an ingratiatingly human, questioning yet highly malleable protagonist, and is but one member of a marvelously cast ensemble, ranging from lead characters to a wonderful grey-haired liberal biddy of a teacher. I loved the mordant Lange, who, despite his being a nightmare as a parent, nevertheless makes a helluva lot more sense than those church zealots with his extolling of Coltrane’s Love Supreme as a worthier text to live by than the Good Book. “Jazz is like life,” he tells his son, “It doesn’t resolve itself.” William McKinney is funny and memorable as Jordan, Don’s erstwhile, good-ole-boy co-employee back home. The scene in which he shows up on campus only to be spurned by his now literally too-cool-for-school friend poignantly evokes that similar moment between snobby Pip and humble Joe in Great Expectations. Raymonde, looking like a slightly scrubbed Amy Winehouse, is rivetingly smart and sexy and I wish more time had been devoted to her Lauryn than Penny, who falls into a rather tired, angelic blonde cliché of hero’s love object and is a bit too annoyingly perfect to be believed, with her self-righteous political proselytizing and secret religious devotion which outweighs any spirituality Don has ever felt.