More open-minded than the current crop of come-home-to-Jesus films, Blue Like Jazz is nevertheless not nearly as tolerant and permissive as it tries to appear. The film is based on portions of Donald Miller's bestselling 2003 memoir of the same name, and the screenplay was adapted by Taylor along with Miller and the film's cinematographer Ben Pearson. Austin-born actor Marshall Allman plays Miller, a devout Southern Baptist who transfers from his Texas junior college to Reed College in Portland, Ore., a bastion of liberalism and student engagement. Miller's Christian faith has been shaken to its core by his discovery that his divorced mother (Littleton) has been sleeping with his mentor, the youth pastor (Marsden). So he does the mature thing and takes off for Oregon to accept his spot among the Reed student body, his acceptance there having been arranged – unbeknownst to him – by his atheist father.
Miller, like many college initiates, goes off the deep end with his newfound rejection of all the values and beliefs he had previously accepted complacently. We don't get to see much of student life that isn't the stuff of clichéd shocks: unisex bathrooms, condoms tossed out to crowds, radical lesbian rants, a guy who always dresses in a pope costume (Welborn). Miller warms to Penny, a Christian student who puts her beliefs into actions via various protests and volunteer work in India.
The primary problem with Blue Like Jazz is that there is no believable character development. Miller's fall from faith seems the act of a petulant child, his re-embrace that of a kid who wants to get the girl and be the next pope. None of the characters or situations in Texas or Oregon have the kind of shading that might make them ring true. The camerawork, in contrast, is finely focused, although a strangely surreal road trip, some amateurish close-ups that reveal the characters' makeup, and several pointless jump cuts intrude on the proceedings. Following its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, Blue Like Jazz is not likely to attract many new converts.