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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Blue Like Jazz' is one smart film

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Blue Like Jazz

(PG-13)

4 out of 4 stars

Unlike the majority of movies that have been targeted to the highly lucrative Christian conservative demographic, the slyly titled "Blue Like Jazz" carries with it four important ingredients others vaguely similar to it do not. While projecting its undeniable message of Christianity and faith, it is also: A) funny, B) subversive, C) intelligent and D) balanced.

In a manner distantly akin to a select few action flicks, "Blue Like Jazz" proves that it is entirely possible to appeal to niche and general audiences at the same time while still taking artistic chances and delivering an engaging story. Movies like this are extremely rare and this one in particular carries equal appeal for those with divisive secular and theocratic tastes; and everyone else in the middle.

The movies' greatest strength is in its assumption that the audiences are not sheep. It never steers you in a direction you might not want to go. It takes the bold choice of forcing you to make up your mind for yourself, while also providing many options. It's not a "finger in the wind" movie; it celebrates free will.

Lead character Donald Miller (Marshall Allman, "True Blood") is a recent high school graduate living in Houston who is a dedicated, God-fearing Christian. Even though he is planning to attend college nearby, his mother -- perhaps unbalanced and described by his friends as "hot" -- is deathly afraid of the impending empty nest syndrome. Donald's father -- who lives in a nearby trailer, dates college co-eds, drinks heavily and listens to jazz -- implores his son to get far away from the Bible belt and, to that end, enrolls him in Reed College.

Ranking alongside Cal Berkeley as one of the most liberal of all art schools in the country, the Portland, Oregon-based Reed is brimming with hippie types, free-love practitioners and radically minded trouble-makers that provide a sort of baptism-by-fire introduction for Donald. Among them are the sarcastic lesbian Lauryn (Tania Raymonde, "90210"), the fetching but emotionally detached WASP blonde Penny (Claire Holt, "The Vampire Diaries") and a guy known only as "The Pope" (Justin Welborn) who dresses full-time like ... well, guess who?

It takes a while, but Donald finally settles in and gets with the progressive program which leads to him ditching his nerdy haircut and square duds in favor of grunge-based plaid, funky hats and considerable, but not detrimental, substance abuse. Donald has seen the light of a different sort and fully embraces what he perceives as a new found freedom.

Those already familiar with the novel on which the film is based will quickly recognize that the name of the lead character and the author of the book are exactly the same. Miller the writer has slowly amassed a considerable following that is just beyond cult and is currently flirting with semi-mass status. Because his perspective on Christianity is, to put it lightly, unorthodox, Miller has yet to latch on with the conservative base but those who like him, really like him a lot.

So dedicated is Miller's fan base that once it was learned that the film lacked the funds to get produced, they started a collection drive on the "catchfire" website and in no time, amassed enough money to get things rolling. That's power. This leads to a most important question ... who exactly is going to want to see "Blue Like Jazz?"

The movie will certainly appeal to those already familiar with the book and to fringe Christians that participated in the 'catchfire" pledge drive. Although the message of the film is decidedly pro-Christian in the end, it takes enough of a detour through pagan territory before its final arrival to turn off those less tolerant. The drug use, the alcohol, the mild profanity, the acceptance of alternative lifestyles; separately, they're not deal-killers but together they could be.

Putting all of the religious aspects aside, "Blue Like Jazz" is simply a well-made, smart, highly engaging film. It's got a great story with divergent, fleshed-out characters, is well-acted and directed (by Miller's co-writer Steve Taylor) and it plays out like a kind of updated, less out-of-control version of "Animal House." It's raucous and on the edge and that could be just what churches everywhere wanting more parishioners need -- a respectful movie that views God and religion and its followers as being cool. (Roadside Attractions)