Whether in reality or on the big screen, you’ve seen the story before; teenage boy meets teenage girl, one breaks the other’s heart, and they go their separate ways, growing into adulthood and apart from each other. What you haven’t seen, however, is a film like Alex Lehmann’s Blue Jay, which re-examines the lingering shards of a long-broken romance as it thrusts two high school sweethearts back together some 20 years after their tumultuous uncoupling.
By chance, Amanda (Sarah Paulson) and Jim (Mark Duplass) cross paths at a grocery store after they, unbeknownst to each other, return to their small hometown two decades after their relationship fell apart. As they dust off old skeletons and bask in the newness of discovering the adults they’ve become (he’s a conflicted handyman, she’s a married stepmom), their history as a couple unfurls over the course of a single evening, revealing the devastating blows and soaring highs that punctuated their time together.
Blue Jay unloads its narrative bulk almost entirely in a single setting, as Amanda and Jim unearth the ghosts of the past—some friendlier than others, as the grave betrayal which tore them apart comes to light—during an overnight stay at Jim’s childhood home. Though the film largely trains on the simple, dialogue-fueled interaction of two people, it feels more spectacular than theatrical, showcasing the acting prowess of two master performers feeding on mutual chemistry and performative bravado.
While Duplass, also the film’s screenwriter and producer, gives an unexpectedly dark turn unlike anything he’s done before, Paulson stands out as the film’s strongest asset. Through a combination of expertly-improvised dialogue and a passionate connection with her character’s perspective, Paulson gives one of the best performances of her career, effortlessly shifting from broken to brazen and everything in between, finding the sentimental joy in revisiting her first love, while carrying with her a lifetime of pain forged by a bitter end to what could have been.
Lehmann’s restrained direction imparts an intimacy onto Blue Jay’s story, quietly focused as his actors carve the narrative space in front of him. He wisely follows their instincts instead of steering them in forced directions, imbuing little stylistic flair, though his takes are long and appropriately patient. He makes the bold decision to drain the frame of color so his audience can feel the weight of Duplass’ brutally honest script without the distraction of conventional beauty leading our gaze elsewhere. The film beams with tonal shades of Linklater and Godard, though the similarities aren’t overbearing. Blue Jay feels remarkably spontaneous, organic, and fresh as it carves a unique lane for itself among the list of 2016’s best films.
Instead of treating puppy love like child’s play, Blue Jay savors the fantasy of foundations built in adolescence, kindled while the heart is still young, and draws out the agonizing reality that romance ultimately fizzles out of necessity as we age and mature. It understands that some messes, no matter how tempting it might be to piece them back together, are meant to stay broken. What you do with the shattered fragments, however, is what separates children from men. A-