The past decade, we’ve seen loads of films convincingly portray the fantasy world of superheroes. Blue Jay (2016) is a film that portrays a fantasy world that actually exists: the world of lovers. You know how couples in love say stupid idiotic nonsense and act like mentally underdeveloped people? That’s because they literally occupy a different world than me and you. The miracle of this film, acted to near perfection with improvisation based on plot outlines, is that it not only portrays this world, it lets us in.
We first follow Jim (Mark Duplass) as he moves back into his hometown in the sticks (an unnamed Crestline, CA) and bumps into his old high school sweetheart, Amanda (Sarah Paulson), at the supermarket. Their romance was so powerful back in the day that Amanda’s pregnant sister doesn’t even complain that her craving for supermarket ice cream is being indefinitely delayed throughout the film. The encounter is a bit awkward; we later find out that Jim’s mother has just died, and that Amanda is now married to an older man—and that they both know these things. They bump into each other again in the parking lot, and following the old mahjong dictum, “If you draw the same tile twice, keep it,” they go to the old Blue Jay theater to grab some coffee. They catch up their two decades apart and reveal that they still remember each other’s quirks and habits. Hope springs eternal.
They take a walk around town, reminiscing about this place and that. Then they pass by the old grocery store and find Waynie (Clu Gulager), ancient even twenty years ago, still manning the counter. Amanda bets Jim a hundred bucks that he still remembers them, directing both of their attentions to a common target outside themselves and creating their first non-self-conscious moment of interaction. Waynie does remember them, “the lovebirds,” and they pretend to be married so as not to disappoint him. The main theme emerges.
They go to their old haunt by the lake and chat. They go to Jim’s old house and chat. They go through Jim’s old room, and Amanda pockets an unsent love letter, a Chekhov’s gun that later goes off to a less satisfying effect than one would hope. They listen to a tape of themselves trying to rap, which suddenly cuts to the fantasy, recorded over the rap back in the day, of their fortieth wedding anniversary. They circle around their old life together, peeking in from this angle and that until, in a sudden moment, they decide to reenter it. Chatting on the porch, Jim reminds Amanda of the ice cream in the trunk of her car, still parked at the supermarket. “Fuck the ice cream,” she says. He responds, “Is that your new rap?” They start freestyling on the theme of “fuck the ice cream,” and we’re off to the races.
They reenact their anniversary fantasy, now shifted to a more accurate twenty years, and we can see the meta quality of their fantasy make Jim start to crack. They dance to Annie Lennox and a rap song called “Dibs.” They have a deep talk in the back of Jim’s old pickup, where they lost their virginities to each other. They almost have sex, but Amanda remembers her marital vows.
This is where things start to break down. Jim declares that he still loves her, making us viewers wonder why two people with such good chemistry broke up in the first place. Amanda drops the stolen love letter, and Jim uses the conceit of the letter’s in-betweenness—written by him, intended for her, but never sent—as a metaphor for that other in-between thing that sundered their beautiful, easy, romantic world: an unwanted pregnancy, which Jim asked her to abort but now regrets. That unsent letter, in fact, is a considerate and deeply romantic first draft, supporting her in staying the course. But the final draft he actually sent was a sarcastic thing that avoided the issue, and the fact that he sent that instead of this proves Amanda’s intuition right that they were too young for a baby.
Duplass does his best to sell the critical scene, and if you turn your brain off and just go with it he even makes it convincing, but ultimately this plot twist is just too out of left field to suspend disbelief in. It comes across as contrived because there’s almost no hint of Jim’s deep sadness in the preceding events and dialogue. The mention of children in the recorded anniversary fantasy leads to their crestfallen faces, but just two scenes later they’re jumping right back into the fantasy, as if what just simultaneously entered their heads was not the traumatic event that split them up. A more organic ending would’ve been to remind whichever one of them broke up with the other of the reason they did so: an idiosyncratic personality quirk that grew in importance until it became unbearable, for instance, or a lack of some key interpersonal skill (as is the case for Olivia Wilde’s character in Drinking Buddies (2013), another Duplass film). Such a revelation would both allow us to see the evolution of their relationship in summary form, as it were, and disillusion them without using an external contrivance.
Regardless, nine-tenths of the film evoke perfectly the ideal reencounter with the one that got away that lies buried deep in the heart of every person who’s ever been in love. It wondrously captures that fragile feeling of an important person grown distant yet still remaining important, if only for the memories shared. In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, left out of the 2013 film is a scene in which Ender encounters his former best friend (p171, end of chapter 10):
The next day he passed Alai in the corridor, and they greeted each other, touched hands, talked, but they both knew that there was a wall now. It might be breached, that wall, sometime in the future, but for now the only real conversation between them was the roots that had already grown low and deep, under the wall, where they could not be broken.
The most terrible thing, though, was the fear that the wall could never be breached, that in his heart Alai was glad of the separation, and was ready to be Ender’s enemy. For now that they could not be together, they must be infinitely apart, and what had been sure and unshakable was now fragile and insubstantial; from the moment we are not together, Alai is a stranger, for he has a life now that will be no part of mine, and that means that when I see him we will not know each other.