Like Old Times: Duplass and Paulson make lovely conversation in "Blue Jay"

Blue Jay (2016)
80 min., not rated.

Like kissing cousins with Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise/“Before Sunset”/“Before Midnight” trilogy, “Blue Jay” is a walker-and-talker of an indie about a former couple reuniting as friends. Working from a script by Mark Duplass (who stars as one-half of the on-screen couple), director Alex Lehmann makes his feature debut and, as he should, invests a lot of trust in the naturalistic connection between Duplass and Sarah Paulson. Mature and intimately staged, “Blue Jay” is a little two-hander that almost feels like it effortlessly could have been made in less than two weeks. It’s not an action-packed night out at the movies, but to viewers who don’t have Attention Deficit Disorder, more than enough happens to make it a pleasure being in the company of two endlessly engaging actors. 

Out of touch for more than two decades, former high school sweethearts Jim (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) run into each other at a grocery store in their California hometown. He is back to fix up his mother’s house to put it on the market after her recent death, and she is in town visiting her pregnant sister. He is married to his work, and she is married to an older man with stepchildren. Once they get to talking, Jim and Amanda grab coffee at a cafe, The Blue Jay, and make up for lost time later at Jim’s old house. As if nothing has changed between them, Jim and Amanda fall back into the past. 

Gently observant and exquisitely performed, “Blue Jay” plays out like a lovely 80-minute conversation. The film is reliant on the momentum of Jim and Amanda catching up and reopening their past, not on a long-winded plot of forced incidents and misunderstandings. As Jim, Mark Duplass (HBO’s “Togetherness”) poignantly essays the part of a lost man like Jim who doesn’t know what he’s doing in his life; the role here isn’t far removed from his character work in 2012’s “Your Sister’s Sister” and 2014’s “The One I Loved.” In a way she only knows how to be, Sarah Paulson (FX’s “American Horror Story”) is exceptional, finding a vivacious spirit and so much nuance as Amanda, who isn’t opposed to relive the same chemistry she had with an old boyfriend, even if it’s just for one night. As a pair, these two bring major context to what these characters had without the crutch of flashbacks. When they re-enter Jim’s untouched bedroom and press play on his old cassette-tape player, their listening to an old recording of the former couple pretending to be married gains insight into the history of Jim and Amanda’s then-relationship. The use of Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You's” also manages to get one’s heart fluttering. 

Within the budgetary parameters of the formerly called mumblecore aesthetic, “Blue Jay” is refreshingly stripped-down filmmaking. It’s strikingly shot in nostalgic black and white and captures a sense of wistfulness with a few snapshots of small-town Americana. In stepping away from the film, it might not all dramatically stick, but at the same time, it is full of achingly bittersweet feeling in the smallest of moments that can’t help but be relatable. Even when wounds are opened and regrets are felt, it feels organic to Jim and Amanda's day-long interaction, and then there is a cathartic sense of closure or maybe even a vital, hopeful step toward another shot. The viewer is ultimately rewarded by just watching Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson carry the film with help from the words of Duplass’ script and the subtle dance of Lehmann’s camera.