The return of our series where writers highlight lesser-known gems available to stream starts with a recommendation for an intimate romance from 2016
Have you ever wanted to revisit your first love? A better question: who hasn’t? Blue Jay explores this desire so precisely that it may as well be a time travel movie. It stars Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson as Jim and Amanda, high school sweethearts who bump into each other a couple decades down the line in the town where they grew up. Neither lives there any more, but they have both returned home at key moments. Jim’s mother has died; Amanda’s sister is giving birth. When they lock eyes at the grocery store, an old flame is rekindled, and it still burns brightly.
At this point, many film-makers would have Jim and Amanda embark on a secret affair that disrupts their lives and wreaks havoc on their relationships, but Blue Jay is after something far less grand. Jim and Amanda go for coffee, and at the end of it, neither wants the conversation to end. They return to Jim’s childhood home, where, thanks to his mother’s hoarding tendencies, Jim’s teenage life remains trapped in amber. They look at old photos, chat openly about the past, and in an extended flight of nostalgia, play house for the evening, pretending that they stayed together after high school and are now a boring, married couple. Heavily improvised and filmed in lush black-and-white, Blue Jay is emotionally raw, giddily entertaining and draws exquisite tension from the possibility that if these two lonely souls stroll too far down memory lane, they may never find their way back.
Confidently directed by Alex Lehmann, Blue Jay presents the kind of romance that was once a staple of Hollywood and has now gone woefully out of fashion. There was a time when film romance was fundamental to the industry. It was the way stars were built. Watching Ingrid Bergman fall in love with Humphrey Bogart during the flashbacks of Casablanca turned them both into major film stars. Bergman looked at him the way we all wish someone would look at us, and her gaze legitimized Bogart as a romantic hero. This doesn’t happen in cinema much any more. Hollywood has lost interest in romance and, either as a symptom or a cause, has failed to produce a dependable crop of movie stars for some time.
If you look at their careers, you won’t mistake Duplass or Paulson for major film stars, but they feel like them in Blue Jay. Jim, a typical Duplass creation, is a strange, sensitive guy prone to fits of crying. “My face leaks,” he jokes awkwardly, the first time it happens. Paulson, adorable in her knit stocking cap, seems to have her life a little more together. She is married with two grown stepkids; Jim is an unemployed bachelor. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t expect she would have anything to do with him, but when she looks at him, the stars fill her eyes. You see it the first time she notices him in that grocery store. Her vulnerability makes her beautiful, while her attraction to him makes us hold him in higher esteem. You know, the way cinema worked for a hundred years before the teenagers took over.
Still, what makes Blue Jay so poignant is how it creates a space for the purity of first love to be fully felt by processing it through the weariness of middle age. In the film’s best scene, Jim and Amanda sit at opposite ends of his childhood bed, where they presumably shared more than one special evening. They listen to a cassette tape they made as kids, in which they improvise gangsta rap. The glances they share could inspire a volume of poems. They rejoice, they regret, they rekindle, all in the same breath. It’s a rich moment of cinema that shows without telling, and implies without explaining. On that score, Blue Jay sputters a bit towards the end – it eventually points to a single cause for their post-high school rupture, when it should have left the past ambiguous – for most of its runtime it is an irresistible cocktail that gives you the buzz of young love with none of the hangover. By the end, your face will be leaking.
Blue Jay is currently streaming on Netflix US and Netflix UK