Reviewed at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance is best known as the home of the American indie narrative, the primordial festival ooze from which first emerged the likes of “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” and “Clerks” and “The Blair Witch Project.” And while the film landscape has changed, that’s still the reason most attendees make the slog to an expensive snow-covered Utah ski town every year to sit in synagogues and racquet clubs and high school auditoriums that have been temporarily transformed into movie theaters and wait for that flash of talent, of quality, of something new. Not to oversell it, but Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” is as good as the festival got on that front this year, a chronicle of the beginning and the end of a relationship that’s so sharp, smart and explosively emotionally honest it flattens everything else in its path.
Cianfrance has the good fortune and good taste to have as his stars pretty much the two best young actors working today (honestly, who tops them?), Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. They’re Dean and Cindy — he paints houses, she’s a nurse, they’re married, with a daughter and a house in Pennsylvania and a car and a tangible history together that’s begun to bow them down. In the present, we spend two days in their company, as they lose their dog, drop their daughter off at her grandfather’s for the night and head up to a cheesy themed hotel for some too-late alone time. And in the past, which we flicker back to in vivid bursts of 16mm (the present is shot in digital), they’re younger and happier and meet and fall in messy, giddy love.
“Blue Valentine” fits nicely into A.O Scott’s American neo-neo realism — Dean and Cindy loom large because their normalcy is so assiduously realized, all of their smallest details and how those details curl and become brittle over time. Dean is a romantic, better with the big gestures, which is what wins him Cindy’s heart when he’s a mover who’s fallen in love at first sight and she’s a college student dreaming of med school but faced with a mountain-sized life decision. Cindy’s the smart one, poised, for a while, to get past the working class grind that shaped the lives of the people with which she grew up.
To watch how the years work on these two, how worn down they start to look, how closed off, is something close to physically taxing. “Blue Valentine” may be simultaneously one of the most and least romantic movies I’ve ever seen. It’s an ode to the transcendence that romance lends the prosaic world — Cindy tap dances at the doorway of a closed storefront while Dean plays her a song on the ukulele (confessing to only being able to sing if he can do it in a goofy voice), both utterly enchanted with each other. And it’s about how those prosaic things can accrue, the small complaints (you have to drink a beer at 8am just to be able to go to your job, she says, and he replies that it’s a luxury that he has a job where he can drink a beer at 8am), until one day you turn around and you’re just not in love anymore.
Out of sequence anti-romances have become their own sort of Sundance subgenre — last year saw crowd favorite “(500) Days of Summer” and the less successful “Peter and Vandy.” But there’s an incontestable epic quality to “Blue Valentine” that sets it apart, something helped by the talents of its leads, certainly, but also by its desire to capture the grandness in these ordinary lives. That we should all see such highs and lows.