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Blue Jay Review: An Emotionally Charged Two-hander

By  · Published on October 11th, 2016

The latest film by The Duplass Brothers is light on the plot, heavy on the tear ducts.

Known for their low-budget features, producing/directing/writing brothers Mark and Jay Duplass have continued to create innovative, moving portraits of American life. Following a series of more high concept films such as Creep and The One I Love, the brothers Duplass return to their roots with their most intimate film yet, Blue Jay.

With Jay serving solely as a producer, Mark Duplass writes and stars as Jim. Upon returning to his hometown to organize his recently deceased mother’s affairs, Jim has a chance encounter with his former high school sweetheart Amanda (Sarah Paulson). Now married and with a seemingly satisfying life, Amanda notices something off about her former boyfriend. Aside from having unkempt hair and unbrushed teeth, Jim radiates sadness. Thus, Amanda takes Jim up on his offer to get coffee, which eventually leads to the two returning to Jim’s childhood home, where the two take a nostalgic look back on their ended relationship. As the pair begins to relive their memories and past desires, old wounds resurface forcing Jim and Amanda to reevaluate the event that forced their separation.

Under the sensitive direction of Alex Lehmann, Duplass’ intimate script is envisioned in black and white. As the colors stripped from the screen, Jim and Amanda peel back the layers of who they are in the present, to reconnect as they were in the past. As expected from a Duplass script, Blue Jay is often achingly funny. Observing Jim and Amanda as they relearn each other’s eccentricities is awkward and charming, though the film is littered with flashes of devastating sadness. Blue Jay truly shines in its ability to shift seamlessly between instants of comedy and tragedy in seconds. One sequence sees Amanda going through Jim’s closet, making fun of the clothes he wore as a teenager. As Jim briefly turns his back, Amanda leans in, pulling the hanging shirts to her face and smelling them. It is these small devices that show an honest understanding of what it means to feel love for another person, a feat not easy to capture in such a brief, seemingly effortless moment.

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While the team of Duplass, Paulson, and Lehmann perfectly convey emotion throughout the film, Blue Jay is not without its shortcomings. A third act narrative reveal feels just too easy for a film centered on such a deep, complex relationship. In explaining the reason behind the couple’s break-up, the dreamlike illusion at play between Jim and Amanda is shattered. Though slightly contrived, an explanation behind the couple’s break-up seems necessary to end the charade being inhabited throughout the encounter.

While Duplass has mastered this kind of role over the past few years, the two hander is perhaps most laudable for the platform it provides for star Sarah Paulson. Known as one of television’s best actors due to her performance as Marcia Clark in this year’s American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and work in American Horror Story, Paulson rarely gets the chance to play such a toned down character. Though always exceptional, Paulson is continually cast in grandiose roles that require accents with big hair and makeup. With no ghosts, witches, or Dream Teams to battle, Paulson is finally given the platform to go deep into a character’s emotional state, resulting in a beautifully nuanced performance.

In our current cinematic state filled with such noise, a small – yet jam-packed with emotion – film like Blue Jay is welcome. With writing so whip smart it could easily work on the stage, Mark Duplass has once again hit it home with this quietly tender gem.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.