All you need for screen romance is two characters, either in love, about to fall in love or remembering past love.
But as simple as that template is, Hollywood rarely gets it right or even attempts to get it right. Which is why there’s indie cinema and the extended cinematic family of The Duplass Brothers to remind them how it’s done.
“Blue Jay” pairs up Sarah Paulson (the recent O.J. Simpson TV series) with writer-actor Mark Duplass (“Safety Not Guaranteed,” TV’s “The Mindy Project”), two high school sweethearts meeting again after decades apart.
All they do, pretty much, is talk. This subgenre of cinema was labeled “mumblecore” some years back, and even though that faded from use as the films turned less talky, it still fits in this case.
Amanda moved away years before. She’s married, running an animal rescue shelter, back in town to visit her sister. That’s when she stumbles into Jim (Duplass).
They were, the weathered clerk (Clu Gallagher of “The Last Picture Show”) at their favorite convenience store confirms, “the famous lovebirds.”
But a chance meeting leads to coffee, emotions awkwardly held in check, two people playing with fire but also rediscovering why they parted.
Amanda finds herself “smiling until it hurts,” and Jim has to apologize for tears.
“My face leaks.”
Over the course of an afternoon and an evening, they talk, flirt and peel away layers revealing the wounds, the entanglements, the lives they’ve half-lived in the decades since.
They may have been in love but frankly, “We weren’t very cool.”
She has moved on. Maybe. He’s drifted through towns and different jobs, and now he’s back at the cluttered old house he grew up in. Everything he didn’t throw is away is a shrine to the Great Love of His Life.
The Duplass script takes the ex-couple through role-playing of the sort they used to do, reminiscing about their “40th anniversary” and the like. None of which can be healthy for either of them.
Paulson plays Amanda as awakened from a comfy slumber, a woman curious to see if the hold she had over Jim is still there, but remembering, from time to time, how to be kind and gentle with someone more fragile than her. Duplass makes Jim more of a cliche, the classic arrested development mess whose spirit was broken by a love affair that was his only hope for the future.
They dance to Annie Lennox, accuse each other and clash over what went wrong. The script has a few groaningly obvious devices and twists. The direction (by Alex Lehmann) is fairly pedestrian and the black and white is more “nice effect” and technical afterthought, even if it does suit the material perfectly.
But this somber monochromatic marvel, shot over seven days (Where? Big Bear Lake, California, maybe?) is an emotionally challenging and mature romance that is, like “Tallulah,” exactly the sort of movie the streaming service Netflix should be producing.
And Paulson and Duplass make all this talk (never once mumbling) fascinating, lived-in and real, taking us into the sad, lost lives of these two long lost lovers. “You can’t go home again,” the novelist taught us. But if you do, the most dangerous enterprise you can undertake is wallowing in “what might have been.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, with alcohol consumption, adult situations and subject matter, profanity
Cast: Sarah Paulson, Mark Duplass,Clu Gallagher
Credits:Directed by Alexandre Lehmann, script by Mark Duplass. A Netflix/The Orchard Orchard release.
Running time: 1:20