Sarah Paulson is one of the most vital actors working today, and at this particular moment she’s damn close to ubiquitous: She’s fresh off an Emmy win for her portrayal of Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, she’s currently doing work in Roanoke, the latest season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story franchise, and this week she shows up as one of two leads in newcomer Alex Lehmann’s lovely romantic comedy Blue Jay, a compact and unassuming film about big, life-changing things that’s presented in a beautiful monochrome package. Think of it as a palate cleanser for Paulson after a year spent maneuvering productions of grander scope and ambition.
But scale and quality exist in two separate zip codes, and what Blue Jay lacks in import it makes up for with effervescence and melancholy. As though to put Paulson’s luminous talents to the test, Lehmann has cast her alongside Mark Duplass, a man primarily known for making tons of low-fi mutter-fests and whose range allows him comfortably to play himself. When Duplass is what you want, the limitations of his persona aren’t an obstacle. (For proof, see The Mindy Project, or better yet, Creep, which both make perfect use of his Duplassity in ways that no project he’s engaged himself in before or since has managed to.) In Blue Jay, Duplass’ tonal qualities suit his character handsomely, but then again, maybe he simply looks better when he’s basking in Paulson’s light. Anyone would.
Duplass plays Jim. Paulson plays Amanda. They’re erstwhile high school sweethearts, returned to their hometown at exactly the same time for exactly different reasons. It’s the film’s first and only contrivance, and it’s the sort of contrivance that isn’t actually affected. You’ve had that experience before, that unexpected and thoroughly awkward reunion with an old flame or an old friend from another period of your life. If the film belabors anything, it’s the “awkward” component, but then again, if you cast Duplass as one half of your story’s love connection, “awkward” is just part of the package. “How are you? Did I ask that already?” Jim stammers at Amanda, who, possessed of all the dignity in the world, replies, “You did, but I’m happy to tell you again.”
There’s nothing special or flashy about the line, and yet Paulson sells it with a tender, playful grace that cuts through to our hearts. You don’t know Jim from Adam or Amanda from Eve, but their adulthood meet-cute encourages us to invest instantly in whatever relationship they had, or still have, or will forge afresh in this late-stage encounter. Blue Jay takes off from there, a plotless love story in the vein of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. It’s talky. It’s lyrical. It’s utterly charming. It’s free of action and bereft of conflict, at least until its last 10 minutes, when its cavalcade of adorable flirtation comes to an abrupt halt upon the introduction of old wounds, wrapped in the hyper-delicate emotional scar tissue that forms with the passage of time.
But let’s not go there, because that record skip is meant as a sucker punch to take the audience off guard and to ground Blue Jay’s delightful, escalating sweetness in something pricklier than domestic pantomime. Until that point, Jim and Amanda ramble around their shitty, middle-of-nowhere burg, visiting their old haunts, making their own six pack at the local general store, and sucking down bad coffee at the diner the film’s title is derived from. (This particular reveal is a welcome relief: You half expect to learn that Duplass’ character is named Jay, that Jay is very sad, and that, well, you can figure out the rest from there.) They reminisce, they catch up, they share jelly beans, and when they go to Jim’s home, they dig through treasures packed away in his room.
Paulson and Duplass make such a great pair that the film’s relative nothingness is pleasurable rather than painful. Blue Jay only clocks in at about an hour and twenty minutes (less, counting the credits scrawl), so it should breeze along by its very nature, but it feels like it only runs about half as long as that. We’re caught up in the propulsion of the film’s reveries, the moments when Jim and Amanda remember bygone days and wonder aloud about who they were as teenagers versus who they are as adults. Blue Jay doesn’t really care about “what if.” It’s more interested in “what is,” which shouldn’t feel as refreshing as it does. We’re just too far past the point where listening to Gen Xers piss and moan about wasted youth is worth the price of admission.
That’s not to say Blue Jay is original, per se, but it is well crafted, well mannered and very well acted, though you may decide for yourself if all credit should go to Paulson. She draws out Duplass’ best merits as an actor, much as Amanda draws out the best in Jim: The more the film progresses, the brighter and more enthusiastic Duplass becomes, relishing every second he gets to be on screen with her. Their chemistry is palpable. Against your better judgment you’ll want the film to indulge in the cliché of a cloying, happy ending. That’s a point for Lehmann’s judgment, as well as Duplass’, who wrote the screenplay: Blue Jay treads on unstable ground that’s not conducive to a fairy tale climax. Maybe that’s why Lehmann, who also serves as cinematographer, chose to shoot in black and white. Sapping all color from the frame lends his narrative a clarity that reality often lacks.
Director: Alex Lehmann
Writer: Mark Duplass
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Mark Duplass
Release Date: Oct. 7, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.