The idea of the lover that got away, the one you can never completely get out of your mind, has haunted artists for generations. (Barry Manilow built an entire career out of it.) And if “Blue Jay” doesn’t necessarily upend this nostalgic conceit, it does at least provide a platform for two extraordinary lead performances by Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass.
Written by Duplass (and performed with lots of improvisation) and directed by Alex Lehmann (a veteran cinematographer and camera operator making his feature debut), “Blue Jay” is as indie as indie gets, from the black-and-white photography (by Lehmann) to the two-hander set-up (the only other person with dialogue is a liquor-store clerk played by veteran actor Clu Gulager) to the walking-and-talking set-up of the story.
That story, such as it is, involves Amanda (Sarah Paulson) and Jim (Mark Duplass), who unexpectedly encounter each other in the hometown that both of them left years ago. She’s home tending to her pregnant sister, while he’s preparing his late mother’s house for sale. The two were high-school sweethearts, but it’s been years since they’ve seen each other.
After bumping into each other in a supermarket condiment aisle, they grab a six-pack and chat near a local lake. Amanda wants to see Jim’s childhood home, and they venture into his old room, still containing the remnants of his teen years, that era when the two of them were a couple. They find cassette tapes and unsent letters, and they dance to the old songs. But she’s married with stepchildren while he’s had his difficulties in his adult life. As they get closer, old secrets and regrets come roaring to the forefront.
The “Blue Jay” script resembles the sort of one-act plays that high schoolers perform in drama competitions, filled with seemingly quotidian dialogue that all seems deeper in retrospect once the Big Secret comes out in the final third. It’s to the credit of both the movie and its stars that the easy sense of naturalism isn’t undone by the eventual revelations. These people are believable, and so are their conversations, and so is their shared past.
Paulson, already having a red-letter year following her Emmy-winning performance as Marcia Clark in “American Crime Story,” further cements her reputation as one of this generation’s most versatile actresses. There’s a lot going on in this performance, but Paulson makes it all look easy. That’s a great match for Duplass, who almost always radiates a sense of being in the moment; his work here is of a piece with his memorable turns in similarly dialogue-heavy films like “The One I Love” and “Your Sister’s Sister.”
And if the use of black and white sounds overly precious, it’s actually a smart choice; the monochromatic scheme not only enhances the sense of nostalgia that permeates the entire film, but it also washes out the landscape, converting the mountainous California region into the kind of spiritually arid landscape that people like Amanda and Jim would feel the need to flee. The film’s look is ably matched by a subtle and plaintive score by Julian Wass (“Other People”).
Overall, “Blue Jay” never seems all that interested in breaking new ground, but its success at providing small pleasures – and memorable performances – makes it worth a look, particularly since a brisk 80-minute running time ensures that these characters won’t wear out their welcome.