Every unhappy family, we’re told, is unhappy in a different way. But families don’t start out unhappy. People don’t get married because they hate each other. Blue Valentine looks at one unhappy family and looks back to a time when things were different.
Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are a married couple living in a small town in Pennsylvania, probably near Scranton, about two hours outside of New York City. They have a young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), who of course is a handful. Cindy works as an obstetric nurse, while Dean paints houses. They aren’t happy, and they really haven’t been for quite some time. We watch them over a weekend when simmering tensions finally come to a head.
But at the same time, we keep flashing back to their whirlwind courtship, four or five years ago. Interestingly, it’s not an explicit reminiscence or anything; we just cut to Dean getting a job with a moving company in Brooklyn, Cindy and her previous boyfriend, Dean meeting Cindy as he moves an old man into the same retirement home her grandmother lives in.
Early on in this flashback timeline, Cindy asks her grandmother how she knew she was in love. Grandmothers, of course, are well-known repositories of kind-hearted, sentimental reminiscences like that. It’s a shock when Cindy’s grandmother replies that she doesn’t think she ever was, and that she doesn’t think her husband ever regarded herself very much as a person.
Cindy surmises that her parents must have loved each other once; they must have been happy at one point. What happened to that, she wonders. Did they use it all up before Cindy came along? We cut to Cindy’s father (John Doman) berating her mother for her cooking, which seems to be a tissue-thin convenient excuse.
Gosling and Williams together give two completely separate arresting performances: one as a young, scared couple excitedly losing themselves in love for the first time; one as a tired, jaded marriage coming apart at the seams just a few scant years later. In both timelines they bring out a raw, unvarnished emotionality. Their dialogue feels utterly natural, with their hesitations and trailings, running over each other’s words in conversation. I’d suggest that they were improvising it all, but that wouldn’t give due credit to the writers: Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis.
As the weekend and the courtship play out, both are presented to us frankly, with sometimes shocking candor. We’re struck by the sheer banality of it all, how the choices that seem perfectly well-intentioned in the past lead directly, inexorably to the miseries of the present. Even without making mistakes, we are burdened down with the sheer weight of our past until we can’t help but drown in it.
And there’s nothing really special about Cindy and Dean in particular; the same story plays itself out in countless variations every single day. No matter how well we plan, or how noble our goals are, life has a way of not working out as we’d hoped. In an amoral, absurd universe things just fall apart eventually, and there’s nothing we can do about it but watch and look backwards to remember when it could have been different.
Worth it: yes, although it’s not an easy movie to watch.
Bechdel test: pass.