The actress Sarah Paulson, who's having a very good year, can do pretty much anything. She turned herself into a racist plantation matron in 12 Years a Slave; Cate Blanchett's lesbian bestie in Carol; and there's her brilliant Emmy-winning turn as prosecutor Marcia Clark in this year's The People v. O.J. Simpson. To say nothing of her show-stopping turns as a witch, conjoined twins and other weirdnesses on American Horror Story.
Paulson wears a knit cap topped with pom-pom for the duration of Blue Jay, a quiet two-hander in which she and Mark Duplass play former high school sweethearts who meet by chance and spend the night inching up to the Thing that forced them apart way back when. She looks lovely in the hat, and in one extended scene she jumps and down while rapping. None of which detracts a jot from the 1940s movie-star magnetism that pulses through her every performance. It's no stretch to imagine her lighting two cigarettes to share with Paul Henreid, trying to placate a bad-seed daughter in Mildred Pierce, or bitch-vamping through just about any George Cukor movie.
Paulson is way overdue for a lead role, and though Blue Jay is minor fare — a modest chamber piece directed by Alex Lehmann from one of Duplass's lesser scripts — it's a great vehicle for her to run up and down the emotional scale without breaking a sweat. When Amanda and Jim cross paths in the small California town where they fell in love as teenagers, they instantly recover the flirty banter of their youth — perhaps more of it than is good for the movie. Mercifully, 24 years spent apart exert their pull, forcing expressive silences between two people who have wangled their way into spending the night in the childhood home of one of them when they know they shouldn't.
Will it be a brief encounter or a sea change for both? At first Jim seems the most obviously damaged of the two, and Duplass, playing off his not dissimilar turn in Lynn Shelton's My Sister's Sister, channels the effortful facial contortions of a middle-aged man trying to cover for the fact that he has utterly lost his way. But as the two flail about, trying to retrieve the vitality and fun of their youth, bursts of anger and sorrow intrude, revealing that both have paid dearly for paths taken — and not.
Blue Jay is a first feature for Lehman, a cinematographer who also shot the film in black-and-white, pausing now and then for slow exterior night shots of this pretty but depressed town. The strategy's a little cliché, but the serenity is welcome, counterpointing the wild swings between euphoria, finger-pointing, gentle nostalgia, and empathy as Jim and Amanda fumble their way to the critical point of pain that sealed their fates all those years ago. I'm not sure that the film needs its rather banal triggering event, or its big reveal. God is in the details in every brief encounter, and this one — if that's what it's destined to be — is all about the multitudes that pass across Paulson's face when, in the movie, Jim urges Amanda to read an old letter that she pocketed without his knowledge earlier in the evening. All her defenses are crumbling, and with them, perhaps, the compromised life she built for herself from the rubble of early grief.
The movie doesn't quite tip its hand about the future that awaits Amanda and Jim. But in that moment when, as in every brief encounter, the lovers must choose between passion and maturity, Paulson shuttles through the souls of Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, only to surface finally as our Rosalind Russell, the finest of them all. No shoulder pads, but the knit hat does the job.