“You leaving room for Jesus?”
While we wait the requisite nine years hoping for another installment in Richard Linklater‘s seminal Before saga, Mark Duplass is here to fill the void early with his own intimate, two person reunion of past love and current strife entitled Blue Jay. Many will scoff at this declaration and say there are at best surface comparisons between the works with this one falling short on the emotional gravitas, but I’d disagree. Perhaps it’s the fact that I relate to two former high school sweethearts fatefully running into each other twenty-plus years later in their hometown more than an American and French woman meeting in Paris. Something about Jim (Duplass) and Amanda’s (Sarah Paulson) collision feels more authentic. There’s history yet unspoken and as many joyful memories as regret.
He’s back to go through the things at his childhood home now that his mother has passed away. She’s back to visit her pregnant sister who never left while their parents enjoy retirement in Florida. Their meeting in the condiment aisle at the local grocery store is the first time they’ve been together since their late teens, but the smiles their mouths and eyes make prove they’d still recognize each other if there were another twenty years between them. But what do you say after so much time passes? Are clichéd conversation starters like “How are you?” enough? Is it weird to inquire about significant others? And when does the notion you may never see him/her again make it okay to omit certain details reserved for close confidants?
This is real life with its crazy coincidences and imperfections throwing out carefully laid plans and replacing them with awkward silences, involuntary giggles, and insane recollections you probably didn’t know still rattled around inside your head. Duplass and Paulson portray their roles with immense compassion and humanity, their steadily growing ease with the other expunging any discomfort that may have existed beneath the shock and surprise. Suddenly they’re at their old corner store to relive the past with ancient cashier Waynie (Clu Gulager), walking to the rocks by the river to sit and talk, and at Jim’s house rummaging through his time capsule of a bedroom for old cassette tapes permanently marked by their former selves. As fun permeates their otherwise personal modes of crisis, revelations are born.
Much of Blue Jay‘s success arrives on the back of its performances and Duplass’ script, but that doesn’t mean we should forget first-time director Alexandre Lehmann behind the camera with his lens circling the central duo as they laugh, cry, and dance to Annie Lennox‘s “No More I Love You’s”. Shot in black and white to ensure nothing distracts from the acting, dialogue, and emotion, we can’t help but push in closer to see what they’re seeing. We can predict when Amanda asks Jim “What’s wrong?” because we see trouble on his face too. We tilt our heads to hear Amanda’s phone call with her husband alongside Jim, trying to parse whether or not she’s hanging out with him for nostalgia or pity as he wonders the same.
A lot of what’s portrayed is silly with make-believe gourmet dinners of ramen and boxed Merlot or jellybean binges and rave-like jumping to an eclectic selection of deep 90s cuts. But with this unbridled enthusiasm come moments of heartbreak too, secrets unleashed upon the other as the love and trust they once had rises to surfaces populated by nothing but insecurities of late. It’s an honest progression from shyness to skepticism to fantasy to the brutal truth reconciling who they were, who they are, and who they still hope to become. We can guess the bombshell yet to be dropped that renders the final fifteen or so minutes a crushing blow of emotion because only something huge could have split them apart, but its impact is potent nonetheless.
And how they react is incredibly genuine, sorrow and rage taking over with good reason as the other stands without fear in the knowledge of their mutual pain. Maybe it has all been a game—a blast from the past lark providing much-needed happiness despite the morning promising a return to normalcy. That’s definitely the hope since any reprieve from the respective weights on their shoulders is a welcome distraction, but sometimes there’s too much history to keep buried when the opportunity arises to dig. Guilt and regret takeover and hearts are emptied at the risk of misguided actions that’ll only give birth to more guilt and regret. But blame is never pointed at one above the other. Both accept their share knowing there’s nothing to be done.
Even when the most devastating event in their lives is spoken about out loud they can still laugh because they’ve accepted what happened despite the pain remaining raw. As much as Blue Jay is about remembering the past and lamenting the present for “good old days” frivolity and versions of themselves they no longer believe could have existed, it’s also about catharsis and acceptance. For one special evening Jim and Amanda are transported onto an island devoid of judgment to share things they’ve been saying to themselves for years. Emotions run high, words slip out, and those self-constructed prison bars wrought by adulthood evaporate into a foundation built through maturity. The floodgates are opened and for the first time in years Jim and Amanda can finally breathe deep.