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Abortion Insights from a Low-Budget Masterpiece
I’m a big fan of the movie Blue Jay—in large part because it caught me completely by surprise. And also because I have a soft spot for early 90’s nostalgia, especially when it includes a reference to Toad the Wet Sprocket. I knew nothing of Blue Jay going in, except for who was in it. All two of them. Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson. The problem is, by recommending the film in this context I’m actually doing it a disservice. I’m spoiling the third act by implication. But there’s nothing for it. It’s been more than a year since I first happened upon this low-budget masterpiece, and I still can't see a good way to proceed. Either I say nothing, and hope you discover it by accident, or I prime the pump and give away the climax.
If you’re at all inclined to watch, add Blue Jay to your Netflix watch list; then forget about it. Stop reading here, and don’t come back to the movie until you can’t remember why it’s there. Maybe then you can experience it as I did. For everyone else, I’ll start you with a warning. Blue Jay is not the kind of film Hollywood would make. I doubt it would test well with focus groups. It’s slow-moving, there are no stunts or special effects, and it’s presented entirely in black and white. The cast list is all of three people long, and the whole thing takes place within the confines of a single day. And, oh ya, it was filmed without a working script and makes liberal use of the F-word. Sound promising?
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As I’m sure you’ve already inferred from the title, Blue Jay connects to the issue of abortion—profoundly and explicitly—though you don’t discover that until the very end. Making its conclusion even more surprising is the fact that Duplass Brothers Productions, the filmmakers behind Blue Jay, have publicly shilled for Planned Parenthood. That’s hard for me to wrap my head around, since the film itself so masterfully portrays the lifetime of hidden grief that often follows an abortion. It’s not sappy or preachy. It’s raw, and awkward, and honest. It’s also charming and funny. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
By way of context, the story centers on two characters—Jim and Amanda—who haven’t crossed paths since high school, some 22 years before. They run into each other at a small-town grocery in the town where they grew up. It's “Same Old Lang Syne,” minus the melody. Jim has returned to pack up his mom’s house following her death. Amanda is there to care for her younger sister who is single and about to have a baby. Jim sees Amanda first, but pretends not to—which hints at their shared history. Amanda then displays some reticence of her own, but her life is clearly the more put-together of the two. She is married and well-off; Jim is jobless and single, with no real direction. He tries to be charming and relaxed—even practicing small talk in the bathroom mirror before sitting down with Amanda for coffee, but he can’t pull it off. “Are you OK?” Amanda asks, when Jim’s forced friendliness almost digresses into tears.
But as the story progresses, their stilted awkwardness diminishes, and a foray into the local liquor store reveals them to be “the famous lovebirds” of yore. By the time they arrive at the time-capsule of a house where Jim grew up—and where his room looks exactly as it had two decades before, the intimacy and camaraderie of their past has nearly returned. Their trip down memory lane hits hyperdrive when they discover and listen to an old audio tape they’d made together in high school. They laughingly admit that they “weren’t very cool,” but it is now clear to the audience—and to themselves, perhaps—that they once shared a deep-seated longing for marriage and family. We still don’t know what went wrong all those years before, but while searching through an old box in Jim’s closet, Amanda discovers a sealed letter to herself and secretly slips it into her pocket.
Later that night, after a full-fledged deep-dive into the role-playing high jinks of their youth, Amanda makes a confession. It’s the first real chink in her armor. “I’ve been taking anti-depressants for a while,” she tells Jim. “And I haven’t told anyone, not even [my husband]. I don’t know why I feel so embarrassed about taking them, and it’s probably because, you know, there’s nothing wrong with my life.” She’s married to a man she cares for deeply, and she has “LOVED” being a mother to her nearly-grown stepsons. “I should be happy,” she continues, “but there’s this sadness, and I don’t know where it comes from.” Despite this sadness, Amanda “literally [hasn’t] cried in five years”—thanks to the meds she’s taking. Jim, by contrast, has already cried twice that day.
Amanda’s confession is made in the back of Jim’s old pickup truck, as they lie looking up at the stars. We soon discover that it’s the exact spot where they lost their virginity many years before. Jim reveals that it’s never been the same for him with anyone else, and Amanda reluctantly concurs. By the time she asks Jim to kiss her, her request hardly seems a surprise. This is where the filmmakers have been leading us from the beginning, and Jim is all-too-eager to oblige. As might be expected, their first impassioned kiss quickly leads them to the bedroom, but then everything goes off the rails.
In breathlessly declaring his love for her, Jim inadvertently triggers Amanda’s conscience. The weight of what they’re about to do suddenly overwhelms her. “I have to go,” she frantically declares, prompting confused protests from Jim. “I should not have let this game go on for so long,” she laments. “Do you understand that I am married?! Do you know what that means?! I belong to someone else!!” But in picking up her coat to leave, the letter she had stashed comes tumbling out—setting up the final showdown, and the final reveal. Upon seeing the letter, Jim becomes almost hysterical. He lashes out at Amanda for stealing it, despite her insistence that it is addressed to her. Amanda is thoroughly nonplussed by Jim’s anger and outrage, until she realizes that he is no longer talking about the letter:
You can’t come into my house and just take this, and do whatever you want with it, without asking me, because it’s mine too! Do you understand me?!… That was my baby, too. It was ours. It was ours! You just f---ing… Why did you...?! Why did you do that?! WHY DID YOU DO THAT?!!
And suddenly everything makes sense. All of the heartache, embarrassment, depression, and despair. I’ve watched the scene a half-dozen times now. I know what’s coming, but the raw anguish and emotion brings tears to my eyes every time. The scene continues:
JIM: I was a scared kid!! I didn’t know how to handle it; you had to give me a minute!! You went away…
AMANDA: You were the one who told me that we were too young!
JIM: I WAS SCARED!! Why did you f---ing do it?! It was a life!!!! We were gonna be so happy. We lost it. We lost everything.
Jim smashes a chair then nearly passes out on the floor as he hyperventilates—clinging to Amanda’s legs as he sobs uncontrollably. In the next scene, the final scene, the sun has risen and we see Jim and Amanda silently walking back to their cars, which are still parked in front of the grocery store in town. But before getting into her car to leave, Amanda pauses to tell Jim the following:
I need you to understand something... I didn’t just irrationally make the decision to do what I did. And I know… I see now that it was incredibly hard on you. But I was the one who had to go in there, and actually do it. Actually go through with it. You know. And I do get that I didn’t handle it well. I didn’t… I just, I tortured myself, going over the options, alone, in my bedroom. Going over and over what I should do. And then you sent me that stupid note. And making all those weird, sarcastic jokes. And then you sent me that stupid “Get well soon” balloon. A balloon, Jim. I don’t know, there was just something about it where it became so clear to me that you were too young, to handle it. We were too young to handle it. And I knew that I was going to have to go through it alone, and I knew I couldn’t, do it alone. And you know… Do I have regrets? Yes... yes. But, what can we do?
In response, a visibly distraught Jim hands Amanda the letter that had spilled from her coat the night before and asks her to read it. After tearing it open, she reads aloud:
Amanda, I know we can get through this together. You are my world. I will never stop loving you.
“It was the first version that I wrote to you,” Jim reveals, his voice choking with guilt and shame. “Why didn’t you send this to me?!!” Amanda asks in anguish, a tear rolling down her cheek. But Jim has no answer to give, apart from what he’d already offered. “I was scared [and] stupid; I’m sorry.” The helpless despair of Amanda’s earlier question still hangs in the air. What can we do? What can we do? For lack of any other option, they stand in the parking lot sobbing, but then the tears suddenly turn to surprise and laughter when Amanda realizes that she is crying for the first time since going on anti-depressants. “Now it’s just never gonna stop,” she opines, caught somewhere between laughter and tears. Finally, she wipes her eyes dry, looks at Jim with a sad smile, and exhales deeply. Jim follows suit, and the movie ends. It’s beautiful, and poignant, and heartbreaking.
If you haven’t already surmised, I’m a fan of subtlety. I don’t generally go in for overly-saccharin outcomes—except perhaps in sheer escapist fiction. But for works of serious drama, I prefer them to more accurately reflect the challenges and ambiguities of real life—where there are no easy answers. In real life, happy endings are short lived, because they’re not actually endings. Life goes on; new problems arise. But I appreciate the insight exhibited in a famous remark by Stephen Hawking: “While there is life, there is hope.” Its implications for abortion are twofold. First, it combats the fatalistic nonsense which believes that babies born into difficult circumstances are fated for a lifetime of misery. Consider Stephen Hawking himself. Health and wealth have never been prerequisites for happiness or achievement. So long as there is life, there is hope!
Second, even though Jim and Amanda experienced the therapeutic benefit of crying together amidst their shared guilt and sorrow, the pain of regret will never leave them. Jim and Amanda, and countless real-world couples like them, will never fully recover from what “that stupid note” cost them. And yet life goes on. And while there is life, there is hope—replete with laughter and sorrow. That’s not to say that time alone heals, but it is a grace of God that our sorrows and guilt don’t crush us completely. What a mercy that we can move on at all. To that end, Blue Jayis both a warning to those facing crisis pregnancy, and a ray of hope to those living through the pain of abortion.
Jim and Amanda listened to the mantra of modern America which says to the young and single: Your life will be ruined if you have this baby. Don’t follow their lead! Learn from their mistakes. Understand that there is a very real chance your life will be ruined by aborting your baby. But if you’ve already followed them down that road, if you already have an abortion in your history, realize that suppression and denial is a recipe for disaster. We don’t know what lies ahead for the fictitious Jim and Amanda, but in confessing their regret and repenting of the mutual harm they’ve done, this erstwhile couple has taken the first step towards healing and restoration—and that’s not a bad place to be.
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