Recasting romance as a rendezvous in Tucson, California, Blue Jay follows Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass as a pair of former high school sweethearts who meet by chance as adults and indulge their memories of each other for one night. With all the awkward familiarity of not-quite strangers, Jim and Amanda circle each other through a matrix of lost time. Where has the time gone? Blue Jay answers: into songs, into memories, into keepsakes, into people.
As directed by newcomer Alex Lehmann, Blue Jay is a simple film with modest ambitions, and there are modest complaints that could be made about the movie that has resulted. Why was Blue Jay shot in black and white? Did this little story really need such a dramatic third-act twist? Is there any man who could truly deserve the love of Sarah Paulson? But proving that over time a container can hold far more than the sum of its measurements, Blue Jay comes alive in its relationship to the slippery fourth dimension. Jim and Amanda are Blue Jay’s protagonists, but time is its subject.
Painting and photography make their mark with singularity, but film is a time art, consisting of millions of images which rush past our eyes, tricking us into believing we’re watching motion. Now shots are cut up and copy-and-pasted digitally, but once film was a medium literally composed of scraps of time, the projector speeding through the pictures at 24 frames per second. As such, all films are a time game, but in Blue Jay the games are doubled as the characters play at mixing their past into the present, praying what was lost might influence what’s to come.
As teenagers, Jim and Amanda joked at what it would be like to be old together, and in their present they resume the game, projecting themselves at once into the remembered past and an imagined future. Amanda has a real husband and real children away from this night of magical thinking, but the reality of the present is subsumed into role play. Jim and Amanda play characters to avoid playing themselves, and the half-concealed versions of what-might-have-been make up for what-can-never-be. The pair retreat to Jim’s childhood home to better inhabit the theater of their own memory, and over the course of their night together his house becomes a kind of time-travel machine where every object has been imbued with the power to fold the fabric of time so that the past, the present, and the future somehow rest on top of each other. His mother’s old romance novels, his high school journal, his old letters, his mixtapes, his clothes — all could be triggers for the cascade of time, the flood of memory, like a grocery-store version of Proust’s madeleines.
Duplass wrote the script for Blue Jay, and he plays one of its lost lovers, but like her character, it’s Paulson who holds all the cards. Paulson recently won her first Emmy for her big-wigged performance as Marcia Clark, the infamous prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial. By contrast to playing a real person — let alone a real person whose relationship to the public eye was as contentious as Marcia Clark — Paulson’s Amanda is a sketch, a character open to momentary interpretation. Paulson is left with room for personalization on the page, and she personalizes with a healthy dose of ironic reflection. Laughing, not crying, then crying, then laugh-crying, it’s as if she’s performing time itself, first passing the moment earnestly only to double in on herself with cheerful self-consciousness — never settling on one response, never sure whether the lost/captured/escaping moment is happy or sad.