‘Blue Valentine’ a moving portrait of the twisty road love travels

Some people go to movies to escape real life.

If that’s you, "Blue Valentine" is not your kind of movie.

It doesn’t believe in greeting-card sentiment, tidy plot twists or happily-ever-after endings.

It does, however, believe in love. That’s what makes it so harrowing — and so moving.

Its central characters, Dean (Ryan Gosling ) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), love each other. That’s been true since the moment they first set eyes on each other — at least for Dean, if not quite for Cindy.

In the six years between then and now, however, something’s happened.

Make that somethings.

One of them is their adorable daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka ), who’s the light of both their lives.

That’s fortunate, because for Cindy, the light has mostly gone out of life.

Unlike Dean, a painter who’s content with his life as husband and father — as long as he can drink to take the edge off and get him through the day — Cindy remembers her dreams.

She wanted to be a doctor. Instead, she’s a nurse.

She wanted to avoid the kind of poisonous relationship her parents had — an abusive father, a cowed mother. Instead, she’s with a man who’s just fine with the way things are — which doesn’t mean that things are fine.

Worst of all, they remember the way they were, once, in the beginning.

As we watch "Blue Valentine," we do, too.

In addition to focusing on Dean and Cindy’s careworn present, "Blue Valentine" skips backward to capture their heady first days six years earlier.

Unlike their bloated, world-weary future selves, this Dean and Cindy beam with youth and vitality — and the prospect of a wide-open future where anything is possible. Especially a life together.

As "Blue Valentine" skips back and forth between their two lives — the unfulfilling present vs. the promising past — it weaves a delicate, yet powerful, emotional web that cuts to the bruised heart of everyday existence. (As John Lennon once ruefully sang, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.)

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance , a documentary veteran, and cinematographer Andrij Parekh ("Half Nelson," "Cold Souls") convey the movie’s then-and-now split in subtle, yet unmistakable, visual style.

They depict the couple’s expansive past through the warmth of film, with a hand-held camera, following them as they explore their future. By the time they reach that future, the images are digital, the world — and reality — have closed in, and Dean and Cindy seem trapped in a series of ever-smaller environments. (None seems more claustrophobic than a tacky motel fantasy suite — portentously dubbed "The Future" — where they escape for a night in a quietly desperate attempt to salvage their marriage. Suffused with eerie blue light, decorated in what looks like Reynolds Wrap wallpaper and a revolving bed, it looks like a no-budget set for a schlocky sci-fi movie, providing a ludicrous yet poignant backdrop for a sequence that initially earned the movie a ridiculously excessive NC-17 rating, later changed, on appeal, to a more appropriate R.)

Similarly, Cianfrance and co-writers Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne give "Blue Valentine" a push-pull narrative structure, deepening our understanding of this couple’s unhappy present through glimpses — by turns charming, earnest and hopeful — of their beginning.

Yet "Blue Valentine’s" script — and scriptwriters — don’t always trust the movie’s characters, or the audience’s willingness to share their journey. Instead, they sometimes settle for easy stereotypes (especially in the characters of Cindy’s father and ex-boyfriend) and plot contrivances that seem glaringly out of place in a movie aiming for workaday realism.

Fortunately, Cianfrance has a pair of performers more than able to make up for any narrative lapses.

In addition to impressive physical transformations (even more impressive when you consider they accomplished them in a month), both Gosling and Williams demonstrate rare commitment to, and understanding of, their characters’ shifting emotional states.

As the means-well Dean, Gosling captures the character’s essential sweetness, along with a certain willingness to take life as he finds it, rather than shape it to his will. Williams, by contrast, ably finds the heartbreak in Cindy’s recognition that the girl Dean loved once isn’t the woman she’s become — and she just can’t bridge that gap anymore.

It’s painful to watch them confront the inevitable — and "Blue Valentine" doesn’t shy away from depicting their dissolution in mournful detail.

Following Shakespeare’s (and Hamlet’s) advice, it holds the mirror up to nature.

Of course, you may not like what you see reflected in "Blue Valentine." But that’s life.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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