When it comes to romance and the concept of true love, we hold up the ‘high school sweethearts’ tag as a pedestal of perfection. There’s good reason behind that sentiment, considering how hard it must be to maintain such a relationship well into your adult years and how few of these relationships actually last beyond high school. Because it’s such a rarity, it’s tempting to categorize it as something that could only exist in fairy tales, movies or any other medium.
A handful of Mark Duplass’s films have dealt with romance in some fashion, and along with co-star Sarah Paulson, the two act in their own 80-minute nostalgia trip, Blue Jay, about what it’s like for the majority of people whose late teenage love fades before it can flourish. After 22 years apart, Duplass’s Jim and Paulson’s Amanda reconnect by chance in their small hometown, but times have changed, and a night of reminiscing brings back old pain. It’d be one thing to say the film is transparently heartfelt and universal – even though it is – but the devastating truths Duplass and Paulson elucidate make Blue Jay one of the most resonant romance dramas of the decade so far.
Just to be certain what’s being depicted is grounded in reality and not the sort of wandering fiction the mind can conjure, Blue Jay is presented in black and white. Pretensions aside, it sets the audience in the mood and forces them to recognize what they see as a slice of life not too dissimilar from their own. Additionally, in all honesty, stripping the color from its pristine California landscapes make for a more gorgeous picture, rather than presenting the forests, hills and lakes as they are. It activates the audience’s imagination and establishes a wistful tone that can gradually decrease for narrative effect.
And let’s be clear, aside from a nice surprise in its Clu Gulager cameo, Blue Jay is specifically written as an acting showcase for Duplass and Paulson’s immense talents. In spite of its short runtime, the film’s pace is appropriately more measured thanks to a hefty amount of scenes that last for a few minutes to ensnare the characters and audience in the moment. Not only are Duplass and Paulson’s characters compellingly written, but they’re given the performances to match as the two actors provide the exact sort of chemistry expected of long-estranged friends or lovers.
It’s inevitably awkward at first considering the archetypal pleasantries that had never had to be previously uttered, but eventually the organic conversational flow once remembered returns to the fold as if someone had opened a time capsule. In their respective roles, Paulson and Duplass naturally evoke the confusing, simultaneous internal presence of loss and longing. Given many of his previous roles, Duplass is well equipped to deliver the sort of performance that forsakes fiction; meanwhile Paulson’s adaptability practically steals the screen entirely.
Part of the reason why the two leads are able to give such naturalistic turns is due to the structure of Duplass’s script and how it builds to its climax. As previously mentioned, most of the film’s scenes linger for a few minutes rather than coming and going in a minute or two. Likewise, most of these scenes consist of Jim and Amanda reflecting on the past. Though its narrative structure may come across as repetitive, some scenes reveal enough about each character that any cyclical feeling is countered with new variables that shape the relationship and the finale. And though the troubles that caused the two to separate aren’t divulged until the climax, making such revelations feel more forced than they should, primarily focusing on the protagonists reliving what made their chemistry so special allows the audience to better connect with them as no relationship and its problems are entirely similar to another.
Depicting relationships in film is a delicate balancing act. You want to make sure your audience can emotionally empathize with your characters through a somewhat simplistic universality, but you have to distinguish them enough so that they aren’t bogged down by genre clichés. Blue Jay undoubtedly achieves that balance with gut-wrenching dignity. Though it ends perhaps too abruptly, it celebrates the ambiguity other classic romance flicks have put into practice. Where does the relationship go from here? Well, it isn’t our business to know.