Blue Jay (Alex Lehmann, 2016)
It’s completely arguable that the faces of independent cinema today are the Duplass brothers. Between acting, writing, directing, and their production company, their hands are directly involved in a large portion of indies being made today. They have become so ubiquitous that it can be easy to miss their ventures due to over saturation. Blue Jay’s theatrical run was completely lost on me, but after hearing good things its quick arrival to streaming platforms allowed me a chance to catch up with the most recent Mark Duplass outing. While he wasn’t the director, as both the lead and producer, his impact is felt similarly to Alex Lehmann’s.
Blue Jay stars Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson as Jim and Amanda, two former high school sweethearts who by chance are visiting their small California home town at the same time and run into each other. Somewhat hesitantly, Amanda agrees to get coffee and reconnect with Jim. Their reunion begins in public and with very surface details. They discuss current relationships and professions, as any former classmates who were at least minimally close may. Other than shared acquaintances, no details are shared about who they were to each other, or why they would exert the effort to reconnect.
It is only when they venture to an otherwise empty local convenience store that hints of their previous relationship emerge. They attempt an old routine on the owner of the store and find that after years away he remembers them and their habits. It’s in the owner’s memory that Jim and Amanda’s prior romantic relationship is mentioned, though at this point it remains unclear whether they were an actual couple or if it was just the assumption an older man who only knew them as customers made. Beverages in hand, they head to Jim’s childhood home where they have time completely alone to dive deeper into their current lives as well as their past.
Near the end of the film, a topic was broached that almost sent me down an angry twitter tirade. The film was directed by a man, Alex Lehmann, and while Duplass and Paulson are very much co-leads, the story does identify Jim as the audience’s vessel. As such, when the discussion of the end of their relationship emerged near the end of night together, in a classic representation of male privilege, the film initially seemed to take Jim’s side on the decisive matter. Enraged I prepared to start a fight the second I completed the film, and thankfully the need subsided after Amanda called him out on his tantrum. This caused the only real shift in prospective, and Blue Jay’s most unique feature. After seventy minutes of following Jim’s perspective on their past, Amanda’s mind finally becomes the central figure and Jim’s lingering childishness is called out; ending the film on a more intellectual and fulfilling note.
Blue Jay is in no way a unique film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The genre of two people connecting over a short time in close to real time is an indie cliché for a reason. When done well it can be exquisite, see the Before Trilogy, and at minimum its often a safe, cheap way to make an independent drama. Blue Jay does not deserve the level of prestige as the upper echelon of these films, but is a fine movie in and of itself. The screenplay takes enough risks to differentiate itself from the rest of the genre. Duplass and Paulson exhibit natural chemistry; the baggage between the characters is palpable, but the love they share is also present. Even the overused decision to shoot in black and white works as imagining the film in color is near impossible. Unfortunately, these strengths combined still just leave Blue Jay as above average in a bloated category.