It’s a standard requirement for all high school English students to read the story “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. It is the perfect example of showing rather than telling, of keeping 90% of the story under the surface (the iceberg theory which Hemingway himself made popular), and of the anguish of an abortion.
Spoilers ahead. I would highly recommend that you go watch Blue Jay before you read any further. Please. For my sake, at least. Go watch this film, then come back and read this. It’s like any movie-going experience—if you aren’t expecting the ending it is far more satisfying when you get there.
The story itself is quite simple. A couple sitting together at a train station somewhere in the middle of Spain are having a discussion with each other. They talk about the drinks they want, about the surrounding hills, and mainly about a procedure that the man wants the women to undergo. “I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time,” he says. “They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
Hemingway never says that the procedure they are talking about is an abortion (the iceberg idea), but the reader knows. The reader understands everything that is happening in the conversation because there is tension that can be felt in your veins as you read it. A pregnant woman and a man who just doesn’t quite understand but just wants his life to go back to the way it was before the train station.
Unfortunately no one knows the ending of the story. It’s never clear if the woman goes to get the abortion or if she has a change of heart and has the baby. It’s never clear whether the man and the woman stay together or break up either. The entire story begins and ends at the train station—ominously pointing to the fact that they can go on any train they want heading in any direction. The future is very open to them.
The movie Blue Jay is the sequel to this short story. It’s based on the assumption that she went through with the abortion, and it’s more a story of how the man and the woman are now dealing with that decision twenty years later.
The beginning of the movie is quite simple. A man and a woman run into each other in the grocery store of their hometown twenty years after they both left. For the sheer ridiculous awkwardness between the two as soon as they see each other (each look at the other, then at the items on the shelves in front of them, then back at each other, making a decision in their mind that we all have made when we see someone from our past—should I just keep walking and act like I didn’t even recognize them?) you know that they were a couple. You know they were high school sweethearts just from the body language. A testament to the brilliant acting of Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass.
There’s still a gross amount of awkwardness. But when I watched it, I just dismissed it as having run into your ex—I’d probably have been just as awkward as either of them, maybe more so.
As they begin to warm up to each other the layers start to peel back more and more. It’s like a slowly clearing shroud of fog over a scenic mountain view.
Jim is back in his hometown because he “beat the shit out of” his uncle who was cheating him out of clients. Amanda is there because her sister is pregnant and she’s left her husband and two children for a quick visit—later she reveals that she is secretly taking anti-depressants and hasn’t cried in over five years.
As the story progresses, they go back to Jim’s parents’ house (who have both died) and nostalgia from their high school romance hits them hard. It’s inescapable as the house is almost sacred to them. They see his mom’s old romance novel collection that they made fun of all the time, they listen to twenty-year-old recordings of themselves rapping and playing “house” with each other, and she finds a letter with “For Amanda” written on the front of it. She pockets it without him looking. This becomes the whole story from this point on—what is in the letter.
As things begin to heat up a bit more between them, Jim professes his love for Amanda—something that she rightly can’t handle since she is married and has two children. She reaches for her coat in a fury, wanting to leave, and the letter falls out of the pocket. Jim picks it up and flips out. “You can’t come into my house and take my things,” he yells and cries at the same time. Then, out of nowhere, he says, “That was my baby too.” Immediately, everything makes sense. This is where the story crosses the line from being a nostalgic, sappy, what-could-have-been love story, to having hard-hitting depth and making the viewer understand a smidgen of the pain they had to carry for the last twenty years of their life. I won’t say what is in the letter in hopes that you, if you haven’t already, go and watch this movie.
I can’t heap enough praise on this film. It was shot in black and white and in seven days. Mark Duplass does a fantastic job of acting, but is superseded by perhaps the best performance of the year in Sarah Paulson. The music is near perfect, and as Steve Greene says, “Doesn’t soar over these two as much as it hovers near them.” Everything seems to contribute to the last ten minutes of this film. It’s a more serious version of Richard Linklater’s Before series—which is also one of my favorites.
But its sheer brilliance comes in its questioning of the quip “Time heals all wounds.” In fact, this movie proposed the opposite. It seemed to say that time only suppresses our wounds and that every person is really just a dormant volcano. I’ve certainly known this to be true in the pain and suffering and wounds that I’ve had in my life. I can forget them over time, but time hasn’t necessarily healed those wounds. And the flashbacks I had to the Hemingway story I read in high school had me thinking of the wounds those two lovers on the train station in Spain were going to have to endure for the rest of their lives. And all the people who will never know.
But in Blue Jay we don’t have to imagine the pain that both of these characters still carry. We get to see it, if only for a moment. Time hasn’t so much healed them but forced them to move on with their lives. And this is what we are often told to do when someone dies or something traumatic happens in our lives. We have a week to mourn and be miserable, then we have to keep moving forward as if it never happened. The world keeps turning. But sorrow and pain are not so easily dealt with.
I wish it were true that time really could heal all wounds. But this film reminds the viewer that people never fully get over trauma—some are just better at hiding it than others. And the real lesson of Blue Jay resides in knowing this and being able to empathize and sit with a person in their pain. To be able to uncomfortably ask how a person is feeling years after their lover has died, or their child, or after they’ve been raped or assaulted.
Pain never goes away and will never as long as we are on this earth. The best thing we can do is know each other’s stories, understand the pain and, in turn, love other people from within it.
Cover image by Bill Williams.