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Austin's Marshall Allman has high hopes for new film about faith

Charles Ealy

The cast and crew of "Blue Like Jazz" hope they've made the little movie that could. They certainly have reason to be optimistic.

Two years ago, the movie looked iffy. That's when director Steve Taylor posted on his blog that the adaptation of Donald Miller's semi-autobiographical work about Christianity and faith was put on indefinite hold because of a lack of investment.

Then Taylor learned about Kickstarter, the online fund-raising site. In slightly more than a month in late 2010, the movie team raised $340,000, primarily through relatively small donations from thousands of fans of the book who wanted to see "Blue Like Jazz" on the big screen.

This week, the movie, starring Austin High School graduate Marshall Allman as a young Miller going through a crisis of faith on a liberal college campus, finally arrives in theaters after a grass-roots bus tour across America, as well as a special screening at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March.

Allman, perhaps best-known for playing the shape-shifting Tommy on HBO's "True Blood," has high hopes for the film, but he knows the subject matter poses box-office challenges.

"Talking about spirituality is like talking about first love," Allman says. "It's impossible not to sound kooky unless you're experiencing it. When your friends fall in love, they won't stop talking about it, blah, blah, blah. ‘Oh, we're moving in together,' they'll say. And you're looking at your best friend and thinking, ‘You're insane. What's wrong with you?' But if you're in love, too, you're going, ‘Yeah, totally, go for it.' "

Allman thinks it's the same way when trying to discuss a movie about beliefs. "If it were just true and self-evidently so to everyone, then it wouldn't be a belief," he says. "It's inherently kooky."

Still, he thinks "Blue Like Jazz" has a shot of breaking through, especially to students who are trying to figure out how to hold on to their Christianity amid the typically secular assaults in college.

"This is a movie that people really want out there," he says. "People didn't just read the book and like it. It almost became a part of their identity. It became a pillar, a manifesto for who they were."

The movie revolves around a young Texas man who has been raised a Southern Baptist, but then discovers that his youth pastor and his divorced mother are having an affair.

Questions of faith ensue. And the young Texan takes the advice of his atheistic father to move to the ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland, Ore., and explore new ideas.

While there, the young man rejects his Christian background in the hopes of being popular, but he eventually discovers that he has rejected a part of himself.

Since its publication in 2003, "Blue Like Jazz" has become a point of discussion among what's known as the emerging church movement, a post-modern take on developing an authentic personal response to God.

"One of the main audiences for the film is college kids, who may be ... wrestling with their faith and wondering ‘How do I seize the day in college without completely abandoning my beliefs?' " Allman says. "A lot of us believe this film will help them have some clarity about that."

Allman says he thinks the movie's quirky humor — as well as its open-minded approach to religion — will help sell the message.

"Sometimes, when people get religious, they abandon any kind of sense of personality. And they lose the ability to be compassionate and understanding," Allman says. "I think there's a whole generation of Christians who are saying we care about social justice, we put ourselves in other people's shoes. Though we may disagree about lifestyle choices, I don't have to force my beliefs on you in order to love you."

Allman says he ultimately sees "Blue Like Jazz" as being transformative. "I think it's nice and refreshing. It would be nice if Christians were known as the most loving people on the planet," he says. "It would be nice to see a whole group of people exemplifying that and making the world a more beautiful place."

Contact Charles Ealy at 445-3931.