Amanda (Sarah Paulson) and Jim (Mark Duplass), the central couple of Alex Lehmann’s “Blue Jay”, first meet in a grocery store aisle. They know each other. We know that they know each other because of the way each one steals a glance of the other and then looks away, and then looks back, and then looks away, as if trying to determine whether to speak or to flee. They speak, tentatively, and that tentativeness is indicative not just of the years passed between them but the emotional baggage that they carry, baggage you can sense continuing to accrue over the course of the film’s eighty minutes, where every time Jim strokes his beard and stammers an “Uh” or “Ah” as he looks away, where every time Amanda steals a knowing yet wondering look of Jim, it hints at the narrative bomb waiting to go off. And so even as these two high school sweethearts eventually fall back into the rhythm of the way things were, they inexorably march toward having to (try and) square with why the way things were went wrong.
Duplass wrote the screenplay and it is impressive for how it withholds information, not to string us along but to communicate the awkwardness of communicating with decades apart and the fear of saying too much, opting for elliptical mentions of the present and references to the past. When Jim claims he likes being married to his work rather than being actually married, Paulson has Amanda respond with a perfect pregnant pause followed by an incredulous “Really? No? Really?” smile before asking if he’s okay. He says he is, but quickly changes the subject, complaining about the coffee at the Blue Jay diner where they are, mentioning that their youthful hangout has really gone downhill, a returning to their shared history to avoid his reality.
If Amanda is also apprehensive about reality, she never completely evades it. As the duo eventually repairs to Jim’s childhood home which he has come back to attend to in the wake of his mother’s death, the ex-sweethearts sit on the deck, under the stars, staring at their hometown in the distance.
She confesses that her marriage to an older man and children is good, if not quite what she thought it would be, and Paulson does not spin these words with anger or regret but a kind of bittersweet recognition for how life can simply settle into a groove so familiar it starts to feel like a rut.
Inevitably, with so many totems of the past stocked all over those, from old love letters in boxes to mix tapes they made when they were kids, Amanda and Jim re-engage with their past, slipping back into the rhythms of adolescence. When Jim expresses comic frustration at Amanda rifling through his belongings she ripostes: “Listen, man, you don’t have a lock on your shit.” And Paulson gives the line the truthful, hilarious, cringe-inducing ring of a teenager posturing, which is what she wonderfully does throughout all these scenes, slipping into the attitude and mannerisms of youth, just see what it feels like again for a few hours.
Apparently, however, it is not enough, because Amanda and Jim do not simply re-live the past within the walls of his old house; they envision an alternate future. They envision it literally, masquerading as a married couple, sitting down to dinner after a “long day”, like an indie Jim & Marcia Brady. It would be a little sweet and a little sad if it didn’t also feel a little desperate, reminiscent of another lo-fi indie, “The Dish & the Spoon”, where a break from reality threatens to leave the main character unmoored. Eventually, of course, the narrative bomb planted in that space between in the grocery store will have to go off, and it does, not that this review will give away precisely what occurs. Suffice it to say that a one-sided screaming match occurs, and for a moment “Blue Jay” threatens to sink on account of tedious melodrama, only to stop short.
Amanda has an early monologue about being on the plane with little boy who screamed and stomped his feet in lieu of expressing himself and how eventually people eventually age out of such petulance. But in the wake of the reveal Amanda realizes that Jim has not aged out of such inexpressive petulance. If Duplass always had a little manchild in him, here he lets it bloom in full, as Paulson almost ineffably lets her character’s turn toward adolescence fall away as she returns to nurturer. If in every preceding moment they really looked like former lovers, here Paulson allows Amanda to look like a wounded mother to a little kid. It’s crushing. If movies about Going Home often provide epiphanies for moving forward, the real epiphany of “Blue Jay” is that the decision these characters made and have regretted was definitely the right one.