Director: Alexandre Lehmann
Cast: Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson
Running Time: 1:20
Release Date: 10/7/16 (limited); 10/14/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 14, 2016
The first thing that Jim (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) agree upon—other than getting a cup of coffee together—is that the café they frequented as teenagers isn't what it used to be. The coffee it serves is terrible now. Jim says he's struggling to finish his cup. Amanda says the place has gone downhill. That's one way of looking at it. The other, which is at the heart of Blue Jay, is that coffee is exactly the same as it was when the pair was in high school. This would mean that something else has changed.
These two have not seen or heard from each other in 22 years. They meet at the grocery store in their hometown. Jim has returned because his mother was ill. She has died, and he is going to clean up her house—maybe to sell it or maybe so he can live there again. Amanda is visiting her pregnant sister, and the sister has a strong craving for ice cream at the moment.
What we know almost immediately is that there is a history between these two characters, and it is probably bittersweet at best and bad at worst. Jim sees Amanda first. His reaction, once he's certain it is her, is to look away—to go back to the shelf where he was looking for something. He is clearly hoping she doesn't notice him, and it's also clear that he kind of hopes she does.
She does see him. Amanda stares for a bit, turns away (At which point, he looks back toward her and then away from her), and turns back. She says his name in that way that's a polite question but really a declaration of recognition. He does the same.
She puts down her basket, while he walks toward her—a single arm slightly extended. He's going in for a hug, but once she looks up at him, his arm, seemingly out of instinct, drops. Once their briefest-of-brief conversation is finished, there is an embrace, although she makes certain that her arms are over his shoulders. She leaves. He lets out an expletive.
Other than the awkwardness of the scene, the first thing we notice in this exchange is how precise the performances from Duplass and Paulson are. It's a scene that says a lot—about these people as individuals, about their interaction together, about their history as a pair—without the characters saying much at all.
We suspect that the screenplay, which was written by Duplass, had this physicality expressed within the stage directions, that director Alexandre Lehmann blocked those motions until they were exact, or that it was some combination of the two. The performances never give away the instructions or the rehearsal. They are as natural as can be.
The two walk through town, pointing out their old haunts and talking about the way things were there. Not much, if anything, has changed. The old man (Clu Gulager) still runs the local convenience store, and he confirms our suspicions. Jim and Amanda were lovers—the town's "famous lovers." They lie to the old man and tell him they're married now. He hasn't changed, so why should they give him a reason to change his rosy outlook by telling the truth?
Amanda is married to a man who has two kids from a previous marriage. Jim is still single, lives and works in Tucson, and needs a change. She wants to see the old house, where they spent happy days together, and he's more than happy to oblige.
It's obvious that neither of these two wants this encounter to end, although they both know it must, so they escape into the past. Amanda goes through the closet of Jim's childhood bedroom, remembering all the shirts he wore in high school, finding a box filled with love letters and photos, and an old tape recording of them playacting what it would be like on their 40th wedding anniversary. "Those kids knew something," Amanda later tells Jim.
The film is deeply melancholy, because it confronts the regrets of what never happened, but it is also joyous in the way it presents two fully committed and developed performances of people trying to recapture the feeling of the past. These two characters talk about the way things are now, the growing realization that they are approaching what's going to be the later stage of their lives (Jim looks at his mother's bookshelf with a sense of mortality, since he knows he's at a point at which he could never read all the books on it), and decide that they're going to do some playacting of their own.
They dance (with "room for Jesus" between them). They sing. They go through the old charade of a hypothetical anniversary dinner. They quickly ease into the old rhythm, and we can sense that it is one.
Duplass plays the more emotionally fragile of the two. Jim is prone to crying over the little things, and he suggests that there's anger beneath it all when he tells the story of why he wants to leave Tucson for good. Paulson is phenomenal as Amanda, in an ebullient but sorrowful performance that communicates her simultaneous guilt over and need for this night. There's a constant battle between those two feelings, and somehow, Paulson neither oversells the fight nor betrays one feeling over the other. They're both legitimate.
Once we learn the relationship between these characters, we know that something happened to end what they once had, and we also know that Blue Jay is going to have to deal with it sooner or later. Something about the film's approach to the revelation feels false—perhaps because it comes so late or because it requires more to be said than before. The film may not stick the landing, but everything before that is special.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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