Conversations about the past are always unpredictable. Leave the moment too early and you lament not saying or knowing more. Stay too long and the magic is gone. But there’s that sweet spot, right at the apex, where the satisfaction of reliving those past joys perfectly outweighs the pain of time lost. With a pair of finely tuned performances and an observant approach to their story, “Blue Jay” manages to capture the satisfaction of that high point, even as its characters fly right past it.
Though shot in black and white (Alex Lehmann pulls double duty as director and cinematographer), the unexpected reunion of Jim and Amanda (Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson) happens in the least dreamlike of places: the harsh, fluorescent lighting of a grocery store condiment aisle. After almost saying goodbye as quickly as they’re brought together, the two leave their cars in the parking lot and embark on a day-long trip remembering their time as high school sweethearts. As they open up a romantic time capsule of a first love two decades gone, they start to reveal the cracks in their “I’ve been fine since you left” facades.
Although “Blue Jay” starts with Jim (and was written by Duplass), the film avoids the tired trope of a man adrift who stumbles upon a past love to help him cope. Though their conversations only allow a few choice insights into the rest of Jim and Amanda’s adult lives, there’s a balance to their revelations that speaks to both of their concerns.
That’s largely due to their well-honed performances. Duplass’ Jim is a vulnerable romantic; there’s an empathetic warmth to Paulson’s Amanda. Together, they inhabit all the qualities that made them an ideal match so many years ago. But at the tiny moments where their reflections on a storybook past hit a noticeable hiccup, their wordless reactions also hint at the reasons for their eventual departure. (It’s also helped by the economic dispersal of Julian Wass’ lovely, airy score, which doesn’t soar over these two as much as it hovers near them.)
It’s nearly impossible for a story so directly built on nostalgia to not veer toward sentimentality at points. Amanda reading Jim’s high-school love poetry and his urging her back towards the passions of her youth slightly overplay the story’s hand, but “Blue Jay” flows best when it looks past the obvious signposts of a relationship for the smaller, spontaneous moments in between.
Despite its shared DNA with certain Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, Amanda and Jim’s story is built more on verisimilitude than profundity. It’s a modest story in a modest setting. While similar two-handers may wrestle with the nature of fate, Lehmann, Duplass and Paulson ground their contributions firmly in the present. The result is the unique satisfaction that comes from watching two characters so absorbed by each passing moment that everything else falls away.
Though most of Amanda and Jim’s journey through memory happens indoors, there are just enough rural touches to give a vivid sense of the place where they originally lived through it all. The glistening lakes, the empty streets at sunrise and the frozen-in-amber interior decor of the cafe that gives the film its title all fill in the unspoken circumstances of small town love. Duplass wisely sets their parsing of the past away from the trappings of a big city (or even one the size of Tuscon, which Jim repeatedly references as his new home). Even the film’s lone cameo, a kindly liquor store owner, is a grace note in a story that’s never dominated by one particular detail.
“Blue Jay” doesn’t lean on destiny or succumb to the easy refrain that time is a great equalizer. There’s genuine happiness here, but heartbreak is always right behind it. And both experienced are established with a fine eye for detail. The conclusion reframes much of their day spent together, but doesn’t negate the moments leading up to it. If the hour and a half spent inside this story seems fleeting, it’s only because sometimes that’s the best you can ask of a good nostalgia trip.
“Blue Jay” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Orchard will release the film in select theaters on October 7th and it will be released on Netflix later this year.