Mark Duplass has found himself in an enviable position. He’s making the films he wants to make with complete creative control. And he’s doing so not by making it big in Hollywood. Instead he signed a four-picture deal with Netflix that offers him artistic freedom while also ensuring the financial backing that many independent filmmakers struggle with.
For the most part Duplass has steered clear of Hollywood’s courting, instead making small intimate films with miniscule budgets. His first movie for Netflix certainly fits that description. “Blue Jay” is Duplass completely in his element and it gives us a good idea of the creative leeway he has been given. It’s shot in black-and-white, it stars essentially a two-person cast, it took only seven days to film, and it was green-lit by Netflix without seeing a script. That’s a trusting partnership.
Duplass not only writes the screenplay but stars in “Blue Jay”. He plays Jim, a 40-ish bachelor who returns to his small California hometown to renovate the house left behind by his late mother. While in the grocery store Jim bumps into his old high school sweetheart Amanda (Sarah Paulson) who happens to be back in town to visit her sister. Their meeting is bit awkward but a cup of coffee at the town’s diner loosens things up and before long they are reminiscing about the good old days.
We learn all we need to know about these two characters through their conversations and recollections. As we slowly piece together their deep connection it becomes clear that their entire lives have been effected by the past they shared. There’s also this neat bit of early 90s nostalgia that shows itself in the scenes where Jim and Amanda cast aside their present-day cares and playfully immerse themselves in their history together. But their memories aren’t wound-free which becomes evident the more time we spend with them.
Director Alex Lehmann wisely keeps himself in the background and allows his two actors to carry the load. Duplass and Paulson have a convincing chemistry and there is an organic flowing rhythm to their dialogue. Much of it is due to a considerable amount of improvisation in place of a conventional script. While Duplass is a natural fit for his character, Paulson is the true highlight. Watching her navigate her character’s many emotional layers left me wondering why she doesn’t get more of these roles.
“Blue Jay” manages to be funny and playful while also taking an honest look at the insecurity and fragility of its characters. Later on it does get a touch melodramatic but it always remains truthful and feels plucked from real life experiences. The wonderful choice to soak the film in black and white adds a wonderful layer of nostalgia and melancholy. It’s a bold choice for a 2016 character drama, but again it demonstrates the audacity filmmakers can show when given creative liberties. That’s why I’m excited for what else this Duplass/Netflix partnership will deliver.
VERDICT – 4 STARS