Blue Jay, dir. Alex Lehmann│Something of a founding father for that particular indie aesthetic which reclaims awkwardness and sentimentalism as the defining characteristic of millennials, Mark Duplass seems keen to try out this sensibility in every conceivable genre and medium, adopting myriad roles in the process from producer and director to screenwriter and actor. After tackling the low-budget, concept horror film with Creep and even mid-budget TV sitcom in the now-cancelled Togetherness, he takes a shot at romance with Blue Jay.
The first of four Duplass films commissioned by Netflix, Blue Jay follows high-school sweethearts Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Paulson) as they meet again by chance in their hometown some twenty years after a traumatic break-up. Shot in seven days in black-and-white digital video and based on a short script used as the basis for improvisation, the film signals a clear return to a state of simplicity more in keeping with the likes of The Puffy Chair and Hump Day, and away from bigger budgeted Hollywood productions so vehemently criticised by Duplass in interviews.
The result is unfortunately much less inspiring than the concept. Most striking is the complacency in the film’s ideas, which essentially boil down to a series of cliches, completely divorced from any sense of the real, and which only make sense as movie tropes and generalisations about relationships. The core problem is that Blue Jay does indeed feel like it was shot in seven days, perhaps even written in 7 minutes, with intensely melodramatic, paper-thin characters and nothing new to add to a premise already more than covered elsewhere. One can almost hear Duplass add the banal detail of the coffee shop called ‚Blue Jay’ just so that the film could have a romantic-sounding name – birds are just so quirky – appearing in lovely cursive font on the poster.
The colour scheme and scenes all feel and look like those fake, fabricated movies you see within other films when the characters go watch an ‚art-house romance’ at the cinema. Indeed, it feels as though the same amount of thought, effort and originality has gone into the conception of those background details as into the making of this film, one which feels like just another notch in the director’s already long list of iMDB credits.
The complacency and laziness is all the more disheartening when one realises that it is intentional. It doesn’t take much work to find out: Duplass himself has said in a particularly maddening interview that „not all movies are movies you want to spend $14 on-and not all movies are movies you want to spend $10 on for ultra VOD, or even $6.99 on renting.” In other words, Duplass knows that his films are not worth $7. Blue Jay is the Netflix movie that comes to mind when someone says ‚Netflix and chill’, something forgettable and not too invasive to play in the background when doing other things.
With that in mind, it seems safe to say that Blue Jay is not made for people who care about cinema. If this sentiment sounds too intense, if it appear ridiculous or overly dramatic to be annoyed that a film which took a slot in a major international film festival unashamedly purports to be the cinematic equivalent of elevator muzak, worry not. Blue Jay manages to be offensive from a human perspective as well.
In its first section, the film offers a vague riff on how growing up also means growing apart, aspiring to something universal and relatable for the audience. An unexpected twist then undermines all this not-particularly-hard work when it is revealed that two lovebirds didn’t separate because ‚time destroys all things’, but rather because Amanda aborted their baby. Angry and tearful, grown-up, adult man Jim then explains that whilst he did tell her to have the abortion, he was just simply scared and she shouldn’t have done it. Amanda’s hearteningly no-nonsense speech about how it was her body, not his, and that she’s the one who had to go through it, not him, unfortunately fails to make up for the fact that the abortion is here used as a plot device, even despite its completely running against narrative logic. How is it possible that during their meet-cute in that supermarket a few hours earlier, the abortion was not the first thing that came to their collective minds? The impulse to go hang out at the titular ‚Blue Jay’ feels absurd in the context of this trauma, and just risible from the perspective of narrative coherence.
My worry is that Duplass’ concern is not with genuine human emotion or cinema, but rather with content, not only framed within the Netflix budget, but also easily identifiable into categories by the Netflix filter. The medium is the message, the technology shapes the product. After years of proving too restrictive and simplistic for classifying films, Netflix categories have finally triggered the creation of content that perfectly suits them. „I’m kind of homing in on this model” says Duplass, and in that respect indeed, he is succeeding. Sarah Paulson’s great performance and one or two genuinely funny scenes cannot wash out the sour taste of entitlement and the sentimental contentment with the mediocrity laurels that Blue Jay proudly rests on.■
Blue Jay│ Director: Alex Lehmann│ Screenplay: Mark Duplass│ Camera: Alex Lehmann│ Editing: Chris Donlon│ Music: Julian Wass│ Cast: Benjamin Dickinson, Nora Zehetner, Dan Gill│ Producer: Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass│ Production Company: Duplass Brothers Productions│Country: USA│ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 85 min. │ International Sales: Duplass Brothers Productions│ Festival: Toronto International Film Festival│