Monday, February 21, 2011

Movie Review: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine (2010)
Starring: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams
Directed By: Derek Cianfrance

We've all heard marriage statistics thrown around for decades -- 50% of marriages end in divorce, fewer people are getting married nowadays, etc. Blue Valentine examines one couples relationship, and it speaks volumes about just how elusive that type of true love can be sometimes. When the "honeymoon period" is over and real life sets in, can your relationship hold up against everyday burdens and commitments?

In Derek Cianfrance's film we are introduced to Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), four years after the bloom has faded off their relationship. They raise their 4-year-old daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka) in a dilapidated-looking house, barely communicating with one another unless it directly involves their child. Dean, a high school dropout who works occasionally as a furniture mover, lounges around the house drinking while the more ambitious Cindy is away at her job as a nurse. As the plot unfolds in "real time," the film is interspersed with flashback scenes showing the young couple as they were early on in their relationship. The stark contrast between then-and-now gives the audience a raw and heartbreaking glimpse into the slow deterioration of a once-loving relationship.

Director Cianfrance has only one prior film credit in his resume. If this film is any indication, he's got a lot of promise as an indie film director. Blue Valentine plays more like a documentary than a conventional film; a gritty look at the erosion between two people who were once in love. Like any great filmmaker, Cianfrance knows exactly which moments in the relationship to highlight in order to illustrate its complexity. He's just an observer of this fragile relationship, much like the audience. The film never suggests that the behaviour of its two lead characters is wrong. They just are the way that they are -- and that makes it all the more believable. Both are, inherently, good people who want to do the right thing. They just aren't good together, necessarily.

Cindy and Dean are rich and fully-realized characters. Both of their good and bad qualities are on display. However, these two characters wouldn't be half as fascinating as they are if it weren't for the performances of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, two of the best actors of their generation. For the sake of realism, Williams and Gosling lived together during filming in order to properly explore the highs and lows that would come with sharing a home with a partner. That dedication to character development and performance is admirable and it pays off in the completed film. Williams and Gosling have undeniable chemistry, whether they are laughing or arguing. Although Williams earned a much-deserved Best Actress nomination for her performance, Gosling should have been nominated as well. Blue Valentine is such a success at creating an atmosphere of both love and tension because of both of the leads. One wouldn't have worked as well without the other.

When Cindy and Dean meet while Cindy is still in medical school, it's clear from the start that their personalities are polar opposites. Ambitious, strong and smart, it's hard to believe, at first, that Cindy would fall for someone like Dean -- a slacker-type who refuses to grow up and carries around a ukulele as a sad reminder of the big dreams he once had about being an artist. However, Cindy's messy home life and irritating jock boyfriend drive her right into Dean's arms -- and his charm and willingness to do anything for her eventually wins Cindy over. When a sudden turn of events throws them even further into a very adult situation, Cindy and Dean dive in head-first without thinking of the repercussions or whether or not they could make their new relationship work. But that's what happens when you suddenly find yourself head-over-heels in love -- you lose focus of your initial goals and ambitions. Hindsight is 20/20, something that proves true to Dean and, especially, Cindy four years down the road.

What makes Blue Valentine so refreshingly honest and complex is that your find yourself rooting for both of them, only you don't really know how or why. Do you root for them to stay together and work it out? Or do you root for them to come to some sort of understanding and part ways while still sharing custody of young Frankie? Regardless of which you might prefer, you just don't want them to fight anymore and you feel sympathy for both of their situations.

Blue Valentine asks you to consider why something that started off so wonderfully can end up in heartbreak and anger. It's a question worth considering and it's something we all have to deal with at some point in our lives. If you are looking for answers, the film doesn't provide any, but that doesn't make it any less powerful or effective.