'Blue Jay': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass in 'Blue Jay'
Small but stirring, thanks mostly to Sarah Paulson.

Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson play high-school sweethearts who reunite unexpectedly in Alex Lehmann's black-and-white two-hander.

"I don't have it all figured out," the character played by Mark Duplass tells his former high-school sweetheart (Sarah Paulson) in Blue Jay, the minor but affecting black-and-white two-hander directed by Alex Lehmann from a screenplay by Duplass. The statement could have been uttered by essentially any protagonist in anything Duplass has ever written, directed or starred in. This indie stalwart indeed has built a career taking the pulse of fragile, angst-filled man-children who, regardless of age (from early twenties in Cyrus to late thirties on his underrated, sadly canceled HBO series Togetherness) or marital and employment status, are very much works in halting progress.

He's not the only one: The blurred line between adolescence and adulthood — particularly as it concerns the white middle class — has been fodder for endless American movies and TV shows over the past decade or so, to the point of exhaustion. But chronicling the chance reunion of a pair of exes 20 years after they broke up, Blue Jay inevitably exists in an additional, even more daunting shadow: that of Richard Linklater's indelible Before Sunset. No wonder the movie, with its walking-and-talking, will-they-or-won't-they central couple and themes of nostalgia, regret and the passage of time, feels so derivative.

Luckily, Blue Jay boasts a handful of fresh, piercingly poignant scenes that cut through the cloud of déjà vu. It also has a not-so-secret weapon in the formidable Paulson, who deserves much of the credit for whatever emotional punch the film delivers.

Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Paulson) run into each other in the condiment aisle of the supermarket while visiting the small California mountain town they grew up in. He's there to tend to his recently deceased mother's affairs; she's spending time with her pregnant sister. As a writer, Duplass practically specializes in fumbled interactions between well-intentioned people, so it's no surprise that the first encounter in Blue Jay is a mini-master class in awkwardness: "How are you?" Jim asks Amanda multiple times before informing her that he hasn't brushed his teeth yet (which is why he keeps licking his teeth).

Amanda isn't easily fazed. The two decide to catch up over coffee at the local diner (the titular Blue Jay) and then, in a lovely scene, stop by a liquor store, where the elderly owner (played by the character actor Clu Gulager) barely bats an eyelash at seeing them "still" together.

Slipping right back into a jokey, laid-back intimacy, Jim and Amanda sit by the lake, sipping beers, eating jelly beans and filling each other in on their lives. Jim is single and works in construction in Tucson, though he's recently hit a rough patch after a professional dispute with his uncle, whom he ended up "beating the shit out of" (note to Duplass: It's hard to imagine you swatting a fly, let alone harming a human being). Amanda has been married to a considerably older man for several years and helped raise his now-college-age children.

Blue Jay follows Jim and Amanda back to Jim's childhood home, where they giggle over his mom's extensive romance novel collection and, in the film's strongest section, hang out in his still-intact bedroom. There, Amanda sifts through Jim's old flannel shirts and reads aloud from his journal, initially amused and then moved by his adolescent ardor. As they proceed to listen to audio recordings of the two of them rapping and then improvising a sketch in which they play an old married couple, Blue Jay conjures a vivid sense of what it's like to be brought face to face with the yawning gap between past and present selves. Jim and Amanda may be chuckling along at their goofy teenage antics, but their wistfulness is palpable, and crushing.

That unmistakable hint of bitter beneath the sweet is something that Blue Jay, at its best, conveys effectively. In the final third of the film's compact 82-minute running time, Jim and Amanda play-act being a couple, exchanging stilted, sitcom-style husband-wife banter over a dinner of ramen, scrambled eggs and box wine. They also slow-dance to Annie Lennox's swooning hit "No More I Love You's," pretending it's senior prom all over again as they sway and sing along. The moment is infectiously silly but also deeply melancholy, the camera closing in on their faces to capture two people giggling through their sorrow.   

In its last minutes, Blue Jay features a twist that yanks the story toward melodrama. It's a clumsy, clichéd development that puts too much strain on Duplass as an actor; he doesn't have the emotional range to pull off what he attempts. If the film proves more stirring than you expect, it's thanks to Paulson, who, with her crisp delivery and teasing eyes welling up with confusion and heartache, gives Amanda an inner life far beyond what's written for her. Just when you think you've been there, done that, she makes you feel like you're watching something new.  

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production company: Duplass Brothers Productions
Cast: Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager
Director: Alex Lehmann

Screenwriter: Mark Duplass
Producers: Mel Eslyn, Xan Aranda, Sydney Fleischmann
Executive producers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Ian Bricke
Director of photography: Alex Lehmann
Editor: Chris Donlon
Production designer: Margaret Box
Music: Julian Wass
Casting: Amey Rene

Not rated, 82 minutes