My first introduction to Mark Duplass came a few years ago as I double-featured Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed and Duplass's own The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. The two films offered an interesting insight into the man's résumé: the former showcases his acting prowess while the latter illustrates his abilities as a writer and director. While the two films didn't do quite enough to make Duplass an immediate must-watch individual, they certainly forced me to keep an ear to the ground. Then came 2014's found footage gem Creep, which once again allowed show off his acting chops in the midst of a story he also wrote. This moment cemented him as a true under-the-radar force, so when I received a number of recommendations about his newest venture, I readily took a chance on Blue Jay.
The film centers around Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson), high school sweethearts who happen to cross paths in their hometown's grocery store. After an awkward initial reaction, the two agree to sit down for coffee. They immediately begin to feel more at ease with one another, venturing down memory lane and recanting their adolescent exploits. As their day slowly turns to night, however, some long-simmering emotions start to boil to the surface, forcing the two to face their life's greatest regrets.
While first-time director Alex Lehmann certainly deserves some credit for his ability to craft a quietly-tense atmosphere that leaves you hanging on the characters' every word, Blue Jay succeeds as a result of Duplass's screenplay. He bore the story out of a simple idea - two former lovers meet later in life - but Duplass has managed to weave an intricate and dialogue-based script that fleshes out the characters in realistic fashion. His story allows for organic development, giving you small bits of information about both Jim and Amanda over the course of the film. This slow burn builds to an emotional third act that includes a bit of a twist I never saw coming. Duplass does the groundwork from the film's very start that ultimately allows the finale to ring as true as the characters he creates.
To complement his screenplay, Mark Duplass puts forth arguably his best performance to date as a broken man struggling with long-subdued feelings. The emotion he brings to the character offers a complex individual attempting to hold onto and process years-old emotions in the midst of his immediate surroundings. We see his walls begin to break early in the film. We see an internally-broken man trying his best to get through every day, knowing that the best parts of his life have seemingly been lost. Enter his former flame, and a new stock on life appears on the horizon. Duplass's performance would be wasted were it not for the incredible work from Paulson. She stands toe-to-toe with her co-star, maintaining her composure for a little longer before falling for the whims of nostalgia. As the two reach one another's emotional level, the true power of their performances break through. Their characters feel real and relatable, giving them a true connective power to the audience.
At just over eighty minutes, Blue Jay offers a streamlined but engaging story that doesn't overstay its welcome. Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson make the characters their own and present relatable individuals with emotional depth rarely seen in mainstream films today. With this film, Duplass continues to prove himself a force with which to be reckoned. I will anxiously await his next foray, be it as actor, writer, or director. He has proven to be adept in each.