Blue Jay (2016)

Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

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Narratively, Blue Jay is like anyone of Before SunriseBefore Sunset or Before Midnight.  Aesthetically it’s like Frances Ha, shot in a sentimental black and white, as if to highlight the nostalgia of this moment for the characters involved, Amanda and Jim (Sarah Paulson, Mark Duplass).  Ultimately it’s a tired premise that could be made fresh by a new approach to the characters and their history, but Blue Jay bypasses the more universal aspect of their story in favor of an act three reveal which undercuts Amanda’s and Jim’s behavior or which is meant to be symbolic of the less dramatic pain of an old, failed relationship we all feel.

In a grocery store one day, Jim and Amanda run into each other.  It’s been a couple decades since high school, and their romance, ended.  Sarah Paulson looks quite youthful, partially because of the beanie she wears which makes her seem younger, but Jim’s beard, with a few gray highlights, is a clear marker of time.  It’s a little cliche for a hardened, recluse of a character to have a beard, as if to show how much he wants to hide from the world.  Hugh Jackman had one in Logan, Jack had one in Lost when his character was off his rocker a little bit, and Walt grew one at the end of Breaking Bad.  The point is that beards = personal demons.

And Mark Duplass, who wrote the story, has a special kind of knack for playing tormented, perhaps slightly toxic characters.  He’s mostly known for his charm, playing characters on The League or in his own films, but his characters all have a darker side of their charisma.  In The Puffy Chair, his character hides behind his charisma, wanting to be the good guy so badly he can’t even tell his girlfriend he wants to break up, instead making her do it for him.  In The One I Love he plays two characters, one the weaker version of himself and the other a more twisted, almost outright evil character who weaponizes his charm, trying to get Elizabeth Moss’ character to free him from this strange purgatory they find themselves in.  There’s another movie, Creep, in which he plays an outright, well, creep, and the point is that Duplass does a great job of hinting at the depths on insecurity, jealousy and outright rage that lurk beneath the surface of the ‘nice guy.’

And in Blue Jay you can kind of sense that characterization.  As Amanda, I’d argue that Sarah Paulson has a lot less to play with.  She’s great in the role, but the character feels a little more one note, at least until the third act when both characters put all their cards on the table.

The first two acts of Blue Jay feel stilted.  These former high school lovers meet, they get coffee, then they walk to a liquor store, then sit by the lake, and the list of barely connected scenes goes on and on.  Though the movie looks beautiful visually, none of these scenes have any urgency, even though you can start to feel Jim’s increasing desperation, wanting not to let Amanda go.

We know that Amanda and Jim have a history, but the story gives us awkward moments meant to really highlight their familiarity.  They go to a liquor store where they have a sort of game they play that feels like it was made up on the spot to give the character some degree of shared history, even though it felt completely unnecessary.  Then they sit by the lake, and, knowing that the story needs some forward momentum, they start to fight just a little but, but that fight feels incredibly inorganic.

I think the story was caught in the middle between wanting Amanda and Jim to explore the distance between them brought upon by two decades of adult life and wanting to explore their personal history which might feel like it could’ve been yesterday, despite their years apart.  In one moment they’re tepidly asking about each other’s lives, and in the next, Jim lashes out at Amanda for “grilling” him, even though she’s doing quite the opposite.

This might work for some people, and just because it didn’t for me, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work at all.  But I recently re-watched the Before trilogy which plays out this dynamic much better.  In Before Sunset, the second of those Linklater/Delpy/Hawke films, Jesse and Celine are meeting for the first time in 9 years.  They walk around Paris for the afternoon, and the stories are essentially the exact same.  The premise being, two former lovers meet for the first time in years and discuss life.

Of course, that could be incredibly boring if not done properly.  In Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine talk not just about each other but about life in general.  They discuss their philosophies, and though the conversation is always oriented around their attraction for each other, the conversation feels incredibly universal as they verbalize things I have to imagine so many of us feel.

But where that film feels welcoming, this one feels closed off.  Amanda and Jim only talk about themselves, and while that might be okay, you have to really care about them and their relationship in order for the story to work.  They discuss the pain of adult life but in a way that doesn’t feel relatable.  Jim got into a fight with his uncle on a contracting job and got fired, and Amanda has been on antidepressants for five years but hasn’t even told her husband.

These details feel hollow, like the story needed something for each character to offer the other as a sign of their pain.  They don’t feel like honest attempts to get at the difficulty of what it means to be human, instead coming off as verbal plot points, like a round of back and forths in a tennis match.  These revelations don’t feel like they really reveal anything about the two characters, in other words.

Later they play house, which is apparently something they used to do.  It’s almost too cutesy to work which is why, for me, it didn’t work.  It felt like we were wasting time because I couldn’t enjoy their happiness since I barely enjoyed being around their characters.

And finally there’s a twist, sort of.  We learn that Amanda was pregnant, when they were together, and that she got an abortion which Jim regrets.  This is the most dynamic part of the story, finally dealing with some sense of urgency, but this comes completely out of the blue that it feels like a completely different story.

But this new dynamic, with their cards on the table, gives Paulson more clay to mold and lets Duplass unfurl his full arsenal of tricks, making Jim more of a tragic, haunted figure.  It might feel like it’s too much, but it was such a relief to see the characters doing too much as opposed to not enough.  The pain, while still a little unbelievable or melodramatic, considering it should be believable given the circumstances, is at least interesting to watch, and I think this would’ve made a much more engaging short film, with just the third act as the story.

But then the movie ends as tepidly as it began.  There’s too much emphasis on giving these characters a bittersweet, but more of a sweet, ending.  Given their pain, I think it would’ve been a bold but more appropriate story to have the film end with them in pain.  Okay, it’s not that I want to see them in pain, but you know that feeling when you dive a little too deep into the past, opening up an old wound?  Yeah, it doesn’t feel great.  You’ve spent all this time trying to sew up the emotional carnage, and then it’s all undone.  You can’t un-undo that over the course of an afternoon.  It’ll takes weeks, even months, and my own experience with such a situation is nothing in comparison with what Amanda and Jim feel or should feel.

We see just how ripped apart Jim is by this, and yet the movie strives to show us that they’re better off for having this conversation.  I’ll give you that, it’s important that they have this moment, but I don’t think they’d say goodbye to each other and just walk away thinking, “man, I’m glad I ran into him/her.”

Or maybe that is how they feel, and I’m the one who doesn’t deal with grief well… hmm.

Anyways, this is a beautifully-shot movie, and the acting is all right, but it’s a collection of scenes that don’t feel important and have no rhythm.  They meet in one place, decide to go to another, then decide to go to another, then decide to go to another, etc.  There is very little connective tissue, nothing making them move onto the next place.  Sure, you might argue that they’re driven by wanting to be near the other person, and it’s clear that they have a strong bond, but I think this could all unfold in the moment, or in one location.  Having them move from a cafe to a lake, to the bed of a truck and on and on feels like a student film, where they reason that you can’t have it all take place in the same location because the audience will get bored.  But if the story’s engaging, and the characters deserve to be observed, then it shouldn’t matter where we are.  The decision to move Amanda and Jim from place to place feels like the film is subtly aware that the audience could get bored.

There are a lot of good elements here.  As I said, the acting and the cinematography, and the direction is not bad even if some of the transitions between scenes are rough, but as a whole it doesn’t quite hold together.  It feels more like an excuse to make a movie than a movie that needs to be made.  And that might be what happened.  The movie was produced by the Duplass brothers’ own production company.  Mark may have written it for Alexandre Lehmann to direct as he, according to IMDB, has never directed a feature film before.

My guess is that Duplass busted out this script in a week or less because he’s a talented writer, and he knows how to put a story together, but that this was just a way of getting the ball rolling and letting a talented director get a shot to direct a feature, something he may have not had the chance to do before this.

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