With Oscar season in full swing, it’s time to forget about the studio-backed blockbusters and commercially successful movies and take a look at the low-budget festival darlings that always step into the spotlight during awards season. This time of year, it’s these indie critics’ favorites that really shine. Powered by spectacular performances from its stars, Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” is one of these movies.
A gritty, realistic drama, “Blue Valentine” has already garnered plenty of critical acclaim, particularly for stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who deliver wonderfully nuanced, powerful performances as two people struggling to salvage their crumbling marriage.
The film focuses on Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams), two hardworking middle class Americans raising their daughter Frankie. From the very beginning of the movie, there are signs of strain in Dean and Cindy’s relationship. The couple seems to be happy, but the initial scenes between the two are tense and suggest otherwise.
Dean is a bleeding heart romantic completely devoted to his wife and daughter, but despite his dire efforts he cannot inspire Cindy to return his love and enthusiasm. Cindy is far more concerned with her daughter and her job as a nurse than with her husband. After years of being married, she no longer loves Dean, and struggles with this realization throughout the movie. She wants to love him again, but as “Blue Valentine” proves again and again, love can fade away regardless of our intentions. As the story progresses, the gap between the two grows ever larger.
Director and co-writer Cianfrance’s story unfolds in two parts as flashbacks cut into the scenes. The film is both a sweet and touching love story and a bleak and heartbreaking tale of love gone wrong. In the flashbacks, Dean tries valiantly to court the resistant Cindy, and the two eventually develop a relationship despite Cindy carrying her ex’s baby. In one of the sweetest scenes in the film, Dean sings for Cindy while she dances in front of a boutique shop on their first date. Moments like these sharply contrast the tense scenes from the present, and make the audience care more about the fate of their marriage.
The contrast has been artfully handled by Cianfrance, who decides to film the two parts very differently. The flashbacks are filmed in digital and the shots show the two lovers together in each frame, while the scenes in the present are shot on film, with the two often isolated in each shot to show the growing distance between them. Cianfrance and cinematographer Andrij Parekh use gritty close ups to capture the raw emotion between the two actors in these scenes. The camera flickers in and out of focus and moves much more in the present, giving those scenes a real, authentic feeling to them.
The film’s true strength comes from its two stars. Without Gosling and Williams’ phenomenal performances, “Blue Valentine” would be much less memorable. Both actors poured in a great deal of preparation for their roles. The actors actually lived together for a while in order to experience how tension developed in a relationship, doing everyday activities together such as grocery shopping. As a result, each scene between the two seems real and intimate. Many of the scenes were entirely improvised, and the actors use their free rein to add to the authenticity of the movie.
Both actors are equally fantastic here, but it is Williams who has been nominated for an Academy Award for her work. She plays Cindy with subtlety and quiet brilliance, a perfect counter for Gosling’s commanding and boisterous Dean. To me, however, Gosling had the better performance of the two stars. He plays Dean with the perfect amount of emotion and energy to make him likable. In another actor’s hands, the impulsive Dean could have easily come across as a jerk, but the talented Gosling makes him the film’s hero.
While “Blue Valentine” is a very good movie, it’s not without weaknesses. The plot doesn’t take the routine, happily-ever-after route as most Hollywood romances do, and some viewers may not leave the theater feeling satisfied with the ending. Also, the movie has multiple very explicit sex scenes that originally got it slapped with a dreaded NC-17 rating (before an appeal got it moved down to R), but these scenes are very necessary to convey the close and complex relationship between Dean and Cindy. As they grow apart, the couple’s interactions in the bedroom parallel their struggles in their marriage.
For all its critical acclaim, “Blue Valentine” only ended up receiving one Oscar nomination, for Williams as Best Actress. If there were any justice, Gosling and Parekh would have been nominated as well.
As Cindy and Dean fight for their marriage, you find yourself rooting for these characters more than you ever do for characters in generic blockbuster romances. The independent “Valentine” is more relatable than those movies, and overall a much better film than its studio-backed competition. Hollywood needs to make movies like this. Movies with real, mature stories rather than superficial, emotionally shallow films with boring one-dimensional characters and predictable plots. Hollywood, I hope you’re taking notes.
Three and a Half out of Four Stars