Blue Jay is a small film. What it accomplishes, and sustains, within its limited scale is admirable. The talky, meandering, one-on-one romantic drama has become a sub-genre of it’s own (Linklater’s Before trilogy being the best example, Chris Evans’ directorial debut Before We Go being the worst). Blue Jay takes the formula, makes it its own, and nearly perfects it.
The film revolves around ex-high school sweethearts Jim (Mark Duplass, who also wrote the film) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) bump into each other in their hometown grocery store after 22 years apart. There’s also Waynie, an elderly store clerk who remembers the couple from their heyday, and other characters who exist off screen- Amanda’s pregnant sister and Jim’s exploitive Uncle/employer. These sparse supporting characters exist to make the world feel real without taking away from the singular, microscopic focus on these two former lovebirds. That’s really what this film nails: specificity.
Jim works on houses- well no, he installs drywall, a single material that goes into a house. They speak their own private lingo and share odd little rituals, like any couple does. Especially embarrassing, mooshy, high school couples. These seemingly trivial things are innocuous enough to be relatable and at the same time unique enough to believably belong to these two souls, and no one else. While exploring Jim’s childhood home Amanda flips through his old shirts, commenting on the ones she used to wear and the ones she used to hate. Jim leaves the pink and purple jellybeans for Amanda, they’re her favorite. Sure, that’s a nice memory to revisit, but it sets off a slow burn toward the meat of their relationship and the impact it left on them. Bit by bit they reveal details of their current lives. The film takes its time parsing out the intricate details of Amanda’s mostly happy but currently unsatisfying marriage. Similarly Jim’s recent unemployment reveals itself to be more complicated than it initially seemed.
Many movies would be happy to leave you with the basics- a woman trapped in a stale marriage, a man in a rut of a career. Hell, this is a strength of the previously mentioned Before Trilogy. In Linklater’s epic series the characters hardly exist outside of the three nights we the audience know them. The romance comes from that couples ability to discuss life candidly without the context of one another’s lives. Ethan Hawke’s character has a wife we know next to nothing about; Julie Delpy’s character works as an advocate for the environment. But those work more as launch-pads to discuss work and relationships more generally. Blue Jay finds strength and relatability by drilling down into these histories in all their gory intricacies. Blue Jay is personal where the Before films are philosophical.
This specificity is reflected in the cinematography. The stark, inky black and white makes for clean, clear compositions. The razor-thin depth of field isolates the characters, leaving their environment out of focus. When they sit by a lake, framed in close up, they could almost be sitting in front of a solid grey wall, if it weren’t for the subtle shimmer of the water.
One of my few gripes with this film is the score. It’s a bit on the nose, and at times overbearing. It’s beautifully composed music, but in an otherwise grounded film the floweriness felt unwelcome and unneeded. The diegetic 90s mix tape soundtrack is much more fitting.
Blue Jay is a beautiful story about the nostalgia and the past, but it doesn’t romanticize it. Which is strange and rare, because nostalgia is inherently romantic. Nostalgia is a massive part of pop culture: memes, politics, marketing, film, and television are all riddled with throwbacks, especially to the 80s and 90s. Audiences love to consume nostalgia (see: Stranger Things, Fuller House; Make America Great Again). But the specificity of the characters and their pop culture references helps side-step the sugary sweet spell nostalgia typically casts on an audience. When the general impressions of the past are stripped away by the nitty-gritty, the cracks start to show. It’s then when the characters relationship becomes legitimate, and their love feels real. When they move past their romanticized memories and remember why it didn’t work out, and they still come out the other end with crackling best friend chemistry.
I give this film 9 Blue Jays out of 10 Blue Jays.
Blue Jay can be see in select theaters and on demand.