Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Blue Jay

BLUE JAY (Alex Lehmann, 2016)

By coincidence former high school sweethearts Jim (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) are back in their sleepy hometown at the same time when they spot each other at the grocery store in BLUE JAY. It’s been around twenty years since they last interacted, so this unexpected reunion is marked by the awkwardness of seeing someone for whom your feelings are complicated. Jim is single and, it would seem, not satisfied with where he is in life. Amanda is married with two stepchildren and appears to be in a good place but lets on that something undefined is lacking. Initially it looks like their encounter will be limited to small talk while shopping, but they decide to catch up over coffee and eventually go to his old house to keep the nostalgia trip going through the night.

The characters in BLUE JAY and BEFORE SUNSET have sharp differences between them, particularly regarding the duration of their old relationship and the span of time since they were last together, but both films circle around similar questions of wondering what might have been and being seduced by the possibility of rekindling what was. When Amanda first spots Jim and vice versa, they display a pronounced hesitancy over whether to say hello and exchange common pleasantries. While tentative at first around one another, they are obviously simpatico as they warm up through reminiscing about the good times they shared as teenagers. It’s apparent that both harbor unresolved feelings yet strive to carry on like there’s nothing uncomfortable. Still, tension lingers between them, presumably over some distant event that split them up way back when.

BLUE JAY hinges on the performances of Duplass and Paulson. They speak almost every line and, whether alone or together, occupy virtually every frame except for the pillow shots that establish location. Duplass and Paulson are marvelous in nonverbally expressing the strain that proliferates in their early attempts to catch up and funny in the tortured ways they say things to avoid emotional slip-ups. They’re walking through a proverbial minefield during the entire film, but in the initial scenes they’re doing so as though they can only take baby steps. When Amanda recognizes Jim at the grocery, you can practically hear the gears shifting in her head as she calculates if it is wise to draw his attention.

As Jim and Amanda gradually let their guards down, the chemistry that they surely had is undeniable. They listen to old recordings they made and goof off in a manner that lets them be their dorky teen selves again but is also fraught with the unspoken issues between them. For a time it is pleasurable to be the carefree people they no longer are. Duplass and Paulson carry themselves with awareness of the danger in their actions if they’re not careful. This balancing on the knife’s edge is what makes BLUE JAY so often thrilling. When the emotional time bomb that has been ticking in the background finally explodes, it envelops this intimate drama in poignancy.

Grade: B+

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