Blue Valentine is about as perfect a film as any you’re likely to see. Even with the recent release of the brilliant Rabbit Hole, it’s been ages since I’ve seen a story so resonant with characters so real. Many wonderful films have taken life issues and heightened them for dramatic emphasis; this movie presents itself so authentically that, if it weren’t for the casting of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, I might have mistaken it for a work of creative nonfiction. We’re often asked to look deeper into characters and discover a little bit of ourselves. Here, we not only see ourselves, but also just about everyone we know or have known. This is a human story – so simple and yet so complex, full of drama and humor, mindful of the situation yet vague with the answers. It taps into our emotions and somehow finds the right one to play off of, no matter what our circumstances in life.
Gosling and Williams play Dean and Cindy. The film shifts back and forth through time, showing two distinct phases in their relationship. In the beginning, Cindy was in college studying medicine and Dean was an employee for a moving van company. They didn’t have much in common, except that they were in love. They’re now married, and although they’re raising an adorable daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), that spark is no longer there. Cindy is a full time nurse and hardly ever home. Dean misses his wife to the point that he drinks a bit more than he should. They snap at each other when it seems as if nothing is wrong. Neither of them are bad people; it’s just that, somewhere along the way, they’ve lost the ability to communicate with one another. Dean tries to rekindle the flame by taking Cindy to a motel and having a night to themselves. It doesn’t go as planned.
What went wrong? It would be far too easy to place the blame on an emotional catastrophe, like an affair or a death. Maybe they’re just incompatible. Cindy’s goal is to become a doctor, which is to say she wants to make something of herself. To make something of yourself is by definition a change, and change is a sign that you’re not happy with the way things are. If you watched as your mother had all the motivation and contentment bullied out of her by your father, would you be happy? Cindy was close with her grandmother (Jen Jones), who told her that, in spite of her marriage to her grandfather, she never really fell in love. So Cindy has two generations worth of evidence to support the belief that the word “commitment” is code for settling for something less.
Compare this to Dean. He lives authentically. He never graduated high school because it just wasn’t for him. When he was younger, he was certain he’d never want a wife or a child; now that he’s older, he realizes that he always wanted both. For him, work is not about building a career but about providing for himself and his family, and he’s content to take whatever odd jobs he can get. In essence, he likes himself the way he is. I suspect Cindy was more attracted to an ideal rather than a person. In those early days, it was fun dating a man with no prospects. Now that they’re married, now that it’s obvious that Dean has no ambition to be anyone other than himself, she sees only the wasted potential. What about his music? What about his singing? It makes no sense to her that he can enjoy those things yet not use them as a way to become something greater.
Inevitably, it comes down to the child. By wanting a divorce, Dean claims that Cindy isn’t thinking of what’s best for their daughter. He argues (perhaps correctly) that Frankie shouldn’t have to grow up in a broken home, as he did. Cindy argues (perhaps correctly) that Frankie shouldn’t have to grow up listening to her parents fight, as she did. I will not use this review as a platform for my views on parental rights or child advocacy. All that matters is that the issue is presented realistically, and that there are no easy answers.
A subplot involving an ex-boyfriend (Mike Vogel) might seem downplayed but is in fact as intelligently written as the rest of the film is. In another life – in another movie – he would be the kind of guy that sits on the witness stand with his head down, sobbing to the jury about loving her too much. Thank God this movie doesn’t go for anything that contrived. It’s a cliché to say that a film is a slice of life, but in this case, that’s the best description there is. Blue Valentine has no agenda; what we personally bring to the movie determines how we view the characters, which is to say we’re not forced to come to conclusions about how we feel about them. They are who they are. This is the kind of movie that may not have stunts or special effects but can still grab you and not let go. You should see it. Then you should ask your family to see it. Then you should ask your friends to see it, but only on the condition that they ask their families to see it.
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The Weinstein Company