When two old high school sweethearts randomly meet at the supermarket after 20 years apart, you can almost hear the sound of old memories and hopes exploding in the air. Luminous Amanda (Sarah Paulson) and shaggy-dog handsome Jim (Mark Duplass) approach the other warily, faces alive with guarded excitement, staring into each other’s eyes, then looking away. Gen X has officially arrived at movie middle age in the slight but affecting Blue Jay, with all the loss, regret, and reckoning that entails.

Shot in crisp black-and-white and buoyed by a pensive, shimmering soundtrack, Blue Jay follows the pair through a day where they spontaneously ditch their responsibilities. She’s in town on a visit; he’s at loose ends in his family home after a parent’s death. Together they get coffee, roam the California mountain landscape, and call in at an old haunt (faking that they’re happily married). Their final stop takes place at Jim’s ramshackle house, filled with cultural artifacts from the 1990s—and relics of their relationship.

The dialogue-heavy two-hander recalls a less morose Old Joy, or perhaps a Before Sunset without the restlessness. It creates two well-defined characters groping in different ways for an understanding of their shared past. Now married to an older man, the outwardly more secure and outgoing Amanda slowly reveals the anxieties she can’t shake. Nervously tugging at his beard, alternately delighted and spooked by Amanda’s presence, Jim struggles to contain feelings we sense he shut out long ago.

Issues of class and worldly success complicate the chance meeting. The film convincingly shows how touchy conversations can feel when one old friend has prospered in life and the other has not. Paulson and Duplass convey a range of perplexing reawakened, overlapping emotions.

Still, this heartfelt movie would have been elevated by some fine-tuning. Dialogue runs a little generic, bald, and nicey-nicey. The endless name-checking of 1990s pop culture (the Gin Blossoms, bad rap music) becomes predictable, and Jim and Amanda’s role-playing games veer too close to the line between childlike and childish. But no matter. These two are real people, not stars or sophisticates, and we’re willing to set quibbles aside as, at one point, they break into an awkward dance and their onetime freedom and excitement break to the surface again. (If middle-aged heterosexuals don’t dance much, maybe they ought to.)

Blue Jay takes a late swerve into a harsh, angry place, but its vibe remains questing, melancholy, and tender.

Directed by Alexandre Lehmann
Written by Mark Duplass
Released by Netfilx/The Orchard
USA. 92 min. Not rated
With Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass