Marshall Allman is Donald Miller, a young future pastor in Texas who dreams of attending a Baptist college, spreading the word of the Lord, and assisting the local youth. Even-tempered to a fault, Miller soon reaches a crossroads -- he finds that his divorced mother is secretly sleeping with a fellow youth officer at the church, leading him into the blind advice of his trailer-park father. Dad, distinctly opposed to religion but worshipful of free-form jazz, reveals to Donald that he now has paid-for tuition to the distinctly non-religious Reed College in Oregon. Seeking an act of defiance to pry himself from what he views as the casual ignorance of the Bible Belt (he noticeably bristles at one pastor's distinctly indelicate impersonation of a Mexican), he absconds to the rainy Pacific Northwest.
Once there, he's greeted by obscure flag football leagues, co-ed bathrooms where lesbians urinate standing up, and a general anything-goes behavior that yields to every viewpoint except Christianity. The fresh-faced youth values his own faith, but he considers it more important to find a place of belonging and a sense of truth. He dives headfirst into various extracurricular activities, hiding his own religious background and making friends with a militant feminist (Tania Raymonde), a flash-mob activist (Claire Holt) and a grandstanding, fully-garbed student who is referred to as The Pope (Justin Wellborn).
"Blue Like Jazz" has an appropriately free-range storytelling structure, jumping from vignette to vignette as the seasons change, showing Donald as restless and eager to meet new friends and take in all-new experiences. Allman is an appealing young actor, and his wide-faced optimism and cracking voice are attractive attributes, even as he's reduced to spectator during the film's more outlandish events. Refreshingly, the film carries a PG-13 rating and fulfills that arbitrary ratings requirement, but it never feels altogether false. While skirting the issue of drunken sex hookups and substance abuse, but also delicately employing foul language, the picture captures the youthful insouciance of the early days of college. The dusty dorm floorboards covered with dodgy carpeting, the communal hormonal difficulties, the sudden expansion of a once-narrow world -- "Blue Like Jazz" feels genuinely lived-in, even as it's Reed College students often seem like naive parodies of "free-thinkers." The film also isn't afraid to embrace the absurdist comedy of young adults foolishly believing they have the world figured out while continuing to be green -- a standout comic highlight is Donald's new bike hobby being sidetracked by a mischevious bear mascot who steals the vehicle and flings it off the side of the bridge. Why these things happen to young people doesn't matter to them, because each day lost feels like the end of the world.
There would be no forward momentum in "Blue Like Jazz" had the film not been cast with such an exacting eye. Allman is a solid conduit for both the world of the pious and the gateway to liberal arts -- you believe that this is his first rodeo, as much as you also believe the natural charisma he reveals, allowing him to penetrate the school's inner social circles. Raymonde is affecting in a boilerplate-edgy lesbian role, and Holt is an undeniable, engaging screen presence, though the real surprise is Wellborn. Playing a veteran student, the older Pope comes across as comic relief, until the depths of his relentless posturing are realized in a late-film coda. It's perhaps the film's weakest moment, compounded by the production's need to have a comforting, conventional ending, that reeks of convention. Wellborn never succumbs to pity-me emotions, creating a fully-realized character that showcases the bulk of this film's humanity. Until that very end, "Blue Like Jazz" feels fresh, vital, and more importantly, unpredictable, challenging and subverting religion in a respectful manner. [B]