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'Blue Jay': Toronto Review

Dir: Alex Lehmann. US. 2016. 80mins

High-school lovers reunite after many years to hash out the past: That’s a very familiar scenario, and although Blue Jay is a warm, likable film, it doesn’t offer anything new to say about nostalgia, the passage of time or living with regret. Mark Duplass (who wrote the screenplay) and Sarah Paulson are fun company, and there’s certainly real feeling in Alex Lehmann’s feature directorial debut. But the whole thing plays out exactly as one would expect, right down to the reveal near the film’s finale of an unspoken old wound.

Sarah Paulson is radiant as a woman who has made decisions about her life which she is happy with — but not so much that she can resist her ex-boyfriend’s charms

Clocking in at roughly 80 minutes, Blue Jay boasts a novel black-and-white look and a talkative script, making it just as comfortable on the small screen as in a theatre. The movie’s intimate drama practically guarantees limited box office, with the target audience being fans of the two actors and of personal, micro-budget cinema. US distributor The Orchard would do well to emphasise the film’s surface similarities to other dialogue-driven love stories such as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy.

As the movie begins, Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Paulson) are both shopping in their hometown grocery store, shocked to see the other there since they both moved away years ago. In town for different reasons, they nervously decide to catch up after being apart for 22 years, eager to learn what each has been up to.

Those conversant in the movies written and directed by Mark Duplass and his brother Jay will sense in Blue Jay a similar curiosity for how people in their 30s cope with the dilemmas of adulthood. But the insights and intensely confessional moments of The Puffy Chair and Jeff, Who Lives At Home are largely missing, replaced by sweet but unremarkable conversation between these former lovebirds.

Lehmann emphasises a relaxed feel, and his actors respond with unfussy performances. The tone throughout much of Blue Jay is wistful as opposed to acrimonious, and there’s pleasure in watching the characters hang out and talk at Jim’s childhood house, playing songs from their courtship and remembering the fun times they had long ago.

The movie does flirt with something more provocative once Jim and Amanda decide to listen to cassette tapes they made of themselves pretending to be an old married couple, which prompts them to role-play as if they never broke up. With faint hints of Certified Copy, Blue Jay watches as Jim and Amanda put away their real lives — including the fact that she’s married with two stepchildren — for a night in which they enter into an alternate reality, as if they could have a do-over on the relationship.

Unfortunately, that conceit doesn’t lead to many surprises, and its revelations are pretty easy to guess before they occur. Blue Jay displays much fondness for its characters, but the fact is they’re not particularly interesting or unique in their angst.

Still, Paulson is radiant as a woman who has made decisions about her life which she is happy with — but not so much that she can resist her ex-boyfriend’s charms. Duplass isn’t as strong an actor as his co-star, but his tenderness is crucial for conveying Jim’s lingering hurt, which is exacerbated by recent work troubles.

For most of Blue Jay’s running time, the story admirably resists the theatrical flourishes that dialogue-heavy films often indulge. Lamentably, that changes near the end when a major bombshell is unloaded that’s meant to explain what’s been going on under the surface. It’s both a predictable twist and one that feels out-of-keeping for a movie that seemingly took pride in eschewing such gimmicks. Both actors bring pathos to the moment, but it still resolves this forgettable tale on an artificial note.

Production companies: Netflix, The Orchard, Duplass Brothers Productions

International sales: ICM Partners, filmsales@icmpartners.com

US distributor: The Orchard, www.theorchard.com

Producers: Mel Eslyn, Xan Aranda

Executive producers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Ian Bricke

Screenplay: Mark Duplass

Cinematography: Alex Lehmann

Production design: Margaret Box

Editor: Chris Donlon

Music: Julian Wass

Main Cast: Sarah Paulson, Mark Duplass, Clu Gulager