BLUE JAY November 1, 2016
Underappreciated is the kind of romantic movie in which the leading pair just talks. The creations of Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner are good and fine — they’re definitive masters of the rom-com — but in my years of obsessive film watching have I found that nothing’s more romantic to behold than voyeuristically watching as a connection between characters forms organically, with no precious meet-cutes, no comedic misunderstandings, to deter the believability of the situation.
Like Richard Linklater’s Before … trilogy and like this year’s Michelle and Barack centered Southside With You, Alex Lehmann’s Blue Jay, headed by the inimitable Sarah Paulson and the cultishly legendary Mark Duplass, is a romantic movie that reasons that beholding deep conversation is more carnal an action than anything sexy we’ve come to expect in the dependably rose-colored genre.
In the film, Paulson (as Amanda) and Duplass (as Jim) are forty-something high school sweethearts that reunite by chance at a grocery store on a lazy afternoon. In the two decades since their breakup, neither has fulfilled the middle-aged prophecies they envisioned for themselves. Amanda married up and is a stepmother to a trio of kids nearing high school graduation. While her life seems ideal, a vision of suburban perfection, she worries about what’ll happen when her nest is empty — she’s dissatisfied and isn’t so sure that she married her soulmate.
Jim, by contrast, is doing much worse. Abidingly on the verge of erupting into a fit of tears, he’s back in town to renovate the home of his late mother. Additionally unemployed and feasibly aimless, all he has to look forward to during the work week is the building of houses with his businessman uncle. But it’s hardly his preferred line of work and he’s bothered by the fact that everything he’s come to understand about himself has all but shattered.
Because Jim’s immediately forthright with his emotions whereas Amanda lets notions of domestic bliss circle around her before she can’t take it anymore, the film largely wallows in his unrequited longing, every smile and every laugh coated in a tangible melancholy. Every revelation is a bruiser.
When the last twenty minutes arrive and it’s divulged that Amanda, in fact, is not the unblemished woman she appears to be, and that the focal relationship is far more complex than meets the eye, Blue Jay metamorphoses from Before Sunset's soul sister to a visceral slice-of-life. In store is not a romantic comedy with optimism peering around every corner but a relationship drama coated in sorrow, in desperation.
It’s a masterstroke in empathetic filmmaking, with Duplass’s screenplay crucially naturalistic and Alex Lehmann’s direction appropriately tender. One false, clichéd move and Blue Jay wouldn’t work — it’d become an interesting, but manipulative, experiment in its genre. But everything about it feels unpredictable and unnervingly genuine, undoubtedly a result of Lehmann’s knowing handling of the material and the masterful performances on the part of the luminous Paulson and the surprisingly moving Duplass.
As its languid eighty minutes breeze by, its black and white photography enhancing its bittersweetness and its spotlessly placed instances of catharsis, Blue Jay proves itself to be among the most exciting independent films of 2016. It’s mumblecore all grown up, an epilogue to the sweeping days Generation X reveled in. You can forget about your Meg Ryans and your Tom Hanks’ here: fakery is nonexistent in Blue Jay, and our seeing of ourselves in Jim and Amanda only heightens its spellbinding hold over us. A-