There is a story that we keep telling ourselves, and with each repetition we reshape it every day. That story is our past, and while we claim that the past cannot change, it is also in a constant state of alteration. Some days we love someone. Others, he or she is just another nameless face amidst a collection of encounters. There is a hug that we can’t seem to forget, and yet that same hugs value may be lost the morning after. Sometimes we willingly reopen the door to the past, and others the past comes inside uninvited and for a duration of time that is unknown.
Perhaps that’s all we need to say about Alex Lehmann’s Blue Jay. It is a story in black and white, like a memory relived, during which two high school lovers, Jim Henderson (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson), spend a day in a space that we may call the ‘in-between’. Neither in the past, nor in the present, Jim and Amanda spend a day evading the truth, so that they may eventually face it. This atmosphere of escapism that characterizes the film is an untold deal between the two characters that brings to the fore their fragmented sense of self.
For instance, it’s clear from the beginning that Jim has lost everything, and has made it his mission to fix his mother’s house. Perhaps in the process of reassembling the house’s pieces, he may regain his wholeness again. Amanda’s fragmentation, on the other hand, is subtle and is gradually brought to our attention later on. It should be noted here that the cause of every revelation is language; it is the center of the film. Time and identity are constructed and deconstructed through words, and all we need to do is pay attention.
The use of diction in Jim and Amanda’s initial interactions, for example, is purposefully laconic in the case of Jim, and pleonastic in the case of Amanda, so as to hide the feeling of emptiness they share. The words ‘good’ and ‘fine’ are repeated several times throughout the first part of the film. One can’t help but notice a certain Hemingway-esque quality in their first conversations. Is it that words have lost their meaning and they can no longer communicate the sense of loss that Jim is experiencing? Or is it the illusion that plain words can hide the plain truth? No matter how many times Jim may rehearse in front of the mirror the word ‘good,’ there will always be a melancholic undertone in his performance that will give away his gloom.
Nonetheless, Jim is not performing on his own; Amanda joins the show. Her husband, Chris, is great, or to be more exact – a “really incredible, supportive, very nurturing, wonderful guy.” Nothing more but a pile of words used by Amanda to convince Jim, or herself, that she’s a happy ‘insta-mom’. It is at this moment that the first obvious crack is visible. Amanda’s description of her family life forces Jim to a halt; a brief pause followed by the repetition of the adjective ‘crazy’ and the first tears of the day. So, while Jim hides behind the ‘goods’ and the ‘fines’, Amanda tries to sell the image of a great marriage to a man who is almost 30 years older than her. Hence, we can say that Jim and Amanda are following a different rhythm pattern at this point.
Perhaps their existence in the same wavelength comes after they listen to a tape recording of themselves as teenagers role-playing their 40th wedding anniversary; a future constructed by words of the past that are irrelevant to the present. Jim and Amanda, presumably around the age of 17, pretend to be presumably in their 60s. We hear an optimistic performance of a future whose scenario includes two kids, a boy and a girl, a homemade meal, and a surprise concert tickets gift by Jim to go and see Annie Lennox. Significantly, the combination of teenage Amanda and the make-believe Mrs. Henderson clashes with the adult Amanda of the present.
Trapped in the words of the past constructing a future that can’t come to pass, Amanda’s cracks are no longer invisible. For her, listening to the tape was ‘unnerving’; it has jolted her into a reality that she’s afraid to face. The discrepancy between the past and the present reveals part of her secret: “it’s almost like I don’t know who that person was on the tape,”. In this way, Amanda leaves the pleasantries aside, lets the mask finally fall from her face, and uncovers the reality that she feels as lost as Jim does.
Everything falls into place when we take into consideration Jim’s journal entry on the night he first met Amanda: “I don’t even know myself anymore. Jim has been ripped in half. I’m so happy to bleed for there is Amanda,”. One can almost hear a reference to Plato’s theory about soul mates from The Symposium: humans used to be two beings in one, but Zeus afraid of their power cut them in half leaving behind merely a wound. Considering that this story about love was told by Aristophanes, a comic playwright, it is generally perceived as satiric. Nonetheless, if we take Jim’s journal entry at face value, which they do, both Jim and Amanda have no grasp of their identity because they are apart.
So, in an attempt to piece themselves together, they decide to ‘have some fun’ and role-play once again, but this time they bring to life their supposed 20th wedding anniversary. This small revision might seem insignificant at first glance, but in reality Jim and Amanda are in their late 30s. Thus, a constructed 20th wedding anniversary is what would have been true if only they would have made a different choice. The whole performance is based on the tape recording’s story of the future; a version of the present emulating the version of the future that was constructed in the past. Time and identity are so fluid; it’s almost as if we’re witnessing an alternate universe. Since there is no definite who and when, there is no judgment, no limitation and no accountability. In a moment of transcendence, both Jim and Amanda can be real.
Unsure of who she is at this point, Amanda can finally disclose her entire secret: she’s been taking anti-depressants for the past 5 years. Consequently, she admits that the role ‘wife of Chris’, and her family life that she desperately tried to frame as happy before is insufficient. Unable to cry for 5 years now, Amanda is not allowed to have a moment of relief. Instead she is confined in a space of numbness, so that she can escape her recurring regrets for giving up a future with Jim and their child. From there, we can draw the conclusion that she took on the roles ‘wife of Chris’ and ‘insta-mom’ of Chris’ children in order to enclose herself in a fast and safe version of what she almost had. With a backfiring plan in her hands, Amanda knows that soon enough she will no longer be taking care of kids, but an ‘elderly’. Thus, unable to place herself in a specific space and time, Amanda wants to spend the night with Jim and remain in what we called before the ‘in-between’, so as to remain in denial for a few more hours.
Interestingly enough, it is words that awaken Jim and Amanda from the hypnotic state of the ‘in-between’. First, Jim’s “I love you” constructs a future in which Amanda becomes ‘ex-wife of Chris’ and a different edition of Mrs. Henderson altogether. Amanda, however, cannot assume that identity and the inevitable fight, that the audience couldn’t have foreseen, emerges. While going through Jim’s things, or as she calls it “the time capsule,” Amanda finds a sealed letter addressed to her and takes it without Jim’s permission. When Jim’s 22 year old letter falls from Amanda’s coat, still unopened, he claims ownership and forbids her to read his words. His subsequent emotional and physical outbreak points to his pain about Amanda’s decision not to assume the role ‘mother of his child’ back then. Although some are against this part of the film because the focus becomes the reason behind Jim and Amanda’s separation, it’s a vital part of the film.
Language, this time written, helps Jim and Amanda transcend their trauma and begin to heal; they’re facing the cause of their fragmentation. In the end, Amanda sheds her first tears after 5 years while reading Jim’s “you’re my world” letter, and therefore we know that she finally takes the first step of acceptance. Words, written or spoken, both trigger and end a fight that had been silenced for far too long.
Overall, Blue Jay is a film that showcases the relationship between language and the concepts of identity and time. Specifically, language is used to construct different identities in different time periods. Thus, Jim and Amanda enter a liminal space in which they finally face each other and their common trauma. It is a process that allows two people to move from denial to acceptance, and eventually reach a better understanding of who they were.