What if, today, you were to run into a past love? The scope of Alex Lehmann’s Blue Jay is humble, detailing not a great rectification of missed opportunity, but reveling instead in two unhappy people as they work through their longings in an extended duet. Jim (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) are both back in their hometown for various reasons, and run into one another for the first time in over two decades at a supermarket. That fortuitous coincidence turns into coffee, which begets beer and jelly beans by the river, which leads to a night at Jim’s deceased mother’s house, where a few of the private nooks of their old romance are re-explored.
Duplass wrote the screenplay, and Blue Jay has the poignant, cleansing wistfulness of the films he’s written and directed with his brother, Jay. Regret hangs like a pall over the Duplass siblings’ oeuvre, stunting their characters, who’re usually jumpstarted by a catharsis. Duplass fashions situations that challenge him as an actor here, painting his character into uncomfortable emotional corners. In the FX sitcom The League, Duplass often has an appealingly self-pleased quality that suggests that he’s not straying too far from his comfortable spot in the figurative pool. But in certain films, most memorably Your Sister’s Sister and now Blue Jay, Duplass thrives when tasked with acting opposite a formidable actresses with greater range than himself, seemingly grooving on their ability to stretch and prod him as an artist.
A self-conscious tension fuels Blue Jay, as the film is about Jim and Amanda and the dance initiated by the actors to fashion this reality. Paulson invests the smallest details with a great wealth of mystery and subtext. When Amanda motions toward Jim’s mother’s bookcase, indicating the amount of books that her husband might be able to read in his lifetime, one is struck by the precision of Paulson’s delivery, which walks a fine tonal line between humorousness and the vulnerability and heartbreak that said humor guards. The slight lilt in her voice speaks volumes. Duplass works harder to achieve his emotional effects, and his gestures and throwaway deliveries often connote performance rather than behavior, which is partially the point, and which is purposefully exacerbated by the fact that his script is slower to reveal Amanda’s backstory than Jim’s, further emboldening the fleet actress with a role of comparatively greater ambiguity.
This sense of an endless feedback loop existing between the actors and their characters allows one to quickly feel the weight of Jim and Amanda’s relationship, rather than obligingly understanding it as a necessity of the plot. They were high school sweethearts, and that history informs the film as an almost palpably physical presence, haunting the settings like a ghost—an association that’s encouraged by Lehmann’s elegantly spectral black-and-white cinematography, which might be an homage to The Last Picture Show, another film about the romance of the past. Duplass and Paulson have extraordinary chemistry, painting a cumulative portrait of the fragility and rareness of being truly in sync with a partner.
Over the course of an evening, Jim and Amanda share a harmony of intoxication and comfort, with just a tang of resentment, and this preciousness fuels a desperation that gradually takes hold in the third act, where Jim’s self-deprecation reaches a boiling point, allowing Duplass a tantrum of searing exposure that drills admirably far beneath the character’s cool-dude façade. At this point, we realize that Lehmann and Duplass understand that it’s creepy, rather than romantic, when Jim and Amanda act out the projections they had of one another as teenagers, seeking to resurrect in the present a dream of the future that was held in the past. The protagonists erect a nostalgic labyrinth of oxymoronically shared isolation, fetishizing opportunities that are now barely even visible in hindsight.