A man bumps into a woman. They go for a coffee. They walk around a cold and quiet town. Nobody else seems to exist there but them. Almost as if every street, pond and house were designed solely for the two to absent-mindedly walk past. A store owner gives them free beer. They get tipsy. They roleplay as a middle-aged married couple. They giggle. They listen to old tapes. They dance. They feel.
But this isn’t Before Sunrise . It’s after the sunset. Somewhere between dusk and twilight, it’s a flash of the dawn that could have been. They are not the divine-sounding, destiny-dating Jesse and Celine. They are Jim and Amanda – modest, earthly names. They aren’t pretty strangers in Vienna. They are something rarer in the chance-meeting universe: Former high-school sweethearts. Ex-lovers reunited by the familiarity of their small Californian hometown. The town that had once christened them “the famous lovebirds”.
Working through memories
Alex Lehmann’s Blue Jay (2016) is about the aftermath of deflected soulmates. It’s about old flames lost in a young memory and old memories fanning the flames of fate. His mother’s death brings him back from the wilderness; her sister’s pregnancy brings her back from civilization. Jim (Mark Duplass) has a scraggly beard, the kind that makes him look like the popular college jock who evolved into a man-childish drifter. He fills his nervous silences with mawkish grins. Jim is the sort of mediocre loner who would grow into someone like Ray Romano’s Andy from Alex Lehmann’s next, Paddleton (2019) – a socially lumbersome and overbearing chap whose best and only friend is his dying neighbour (Duplass). Amanda (Sarah Paulson) has a perpetual, almost creepy smile plastered onto her face, evoking the rooted denial of a star cheerleader who overcompensated for their failed relationship by marrying a rich divorcee 30 years older than them. She wears the mask of stability, but tries hard not to sound like a domestic stereotype whose step-children are only slightly younger than her.
Everyone thought they would end up together. Yet here they are, familiar strangers at the crossroads of time, meeting as though they were on a first date and simultaneously revisioning their lost history in the hope of pinpointing the moment their future ended. Here they are, former heartthrobs slowly wondering why they are the subject of a movie named after a local coffee shop selling bad coffee rather than of lofty love stories called Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, La La Land or even High School Musical .
When the moment comes, the man collapses in tears and clutches her knees, apologetic for his bitter words but also performatively venting as if he were dead sure that his manner of meltdown might inspire famous actors like Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson to recreate this moment in a high-profile divorce story. She recoils like she seems to know that the monochromatic frames of their movie is the closest they will come to being the timeless lovers of Cold War . Once the reason for their breakup is revealed, Jim and Amanda react like tragics who deserved a chance to star in their own Blue Valentine . When the moment comes, the two explode like characters who missed a shot at their own flawed narrative.
Thin red line
The thing about an Alex Lehmann film is that it uses the rhythm of awkward nothingness to lull the viewer into a false sense of satisfaction. The actors make us cringe at their stark everydayness. You expect Jim and Amanda to turn closure into a physical expression. You are conditioned to expect the chemistry, the kiss, but not the fallout of falling back in. The buildup is indie – black-and-white images, nostalgic chats, the lovely melancholy of the scene in which they listen to tapes of their teenage selves pretending to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary – but the emotional crescendo is very much mainstream. In the end, Lehmann turns the obvious into an epiphany. When they enact the anniversary scene “just for fun,” you sense how much they miss the boy and the girl who dreamed of a happy ending. You understand that residual feelings are more of a privilege than a bane, if only to locate the thin red line between “what if” and “what for”.
On another day, Jim might have walked out of the supermarket without being spotted by his ex only to paint his mid-life crisis as a portrait of urban isolation. On another night, Amanda might have slept with her ex and left him a resolutionary letter. But Amanda hasn’t cried in years – perhaps she is looking for someone who can drive her to tears. And Jim hasn’t laughed in ages. Together, they reclaim the cinema of serendipity and turn fate into an act of faith.