Blue Valentine is like (500) Days of Summer for the people who ended up marrying Summer. And Summer’s the guy in this. It’s a risk to tell the story out of order, not a narrative risk but a risk of being lame. So many movies do it cheaply. I don’t think Blue Valentine breaks any new ground but it’s one of the good ones. It at least knows how to position scenes for context and impact, and doesn’t push it into pretentious realms.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are a married couple with a daughter. As the scenes unfold, we get to see how characters in their lives played unexpected roles in their relationship, and how circumstances had surprising effects on their outcome. I think Cindy’s the one deluding herself that Dean is a good match, which is why I say he’s the Summer in that comparison.

The film conveys that awkward pressure of talking. Just filling the silence leads to trouble, and haven’t we all been there? Cindy mentions running into Bobby (Mike Vogel) and there’s nothing she can say that doesn’t sound threatening to Dean. Later in the movie you see how Bobby assaulted Dean, and how Dean supported Cindy in the aftermath of that relationship. So maybe he has a reason to freak out about Bobby.

Cindy tries to encourage Dean to be more than a house painter, but it only sounds like criticism to Dean. Dean asks Cindy to come away with him but he can’t see he’s being a needy burden. It’s fascinating to see these conversations devolve. Sad, but maybe there’s a good lesson for viewers.

Considering the ratings issues, the sex scenes are rather conservative. In one, Cindy keeps her shirt on and her former lover Bobby keeps his pants on. However, the sound in that scene is more explicit than any visual. There is a shower scene, but I think it’s the central sex scene between Cindy and Dean that got Blue Valentine the rating.

We know the MPAA allows a certain number of thrusts in an R-rated sex scene, and you know what? The MPAA is right. This many thrusts makes the scene way more intimate than a quick shot of a couple in action. We can recognize the intensity of this act and it feels a little dirty watching something so intimate.

There’s an abortion scene that will actually be more upsetting than the sex. That’s good though. It’s healthy to portray a sensitive subject in an intimate manner so people can deal with it.

Williams is the standout performance here. Gosling gets the showy role because Dean is the one who freaks out several times. We know Gosling can do that but Williams conveys all of Cindy’s frustration with subtlety that feels real and doesn’t feel like mugging for an Oscar clip.

This may sound like a downer, but it’s a healthy downer. You can appreciate the drama and feel a catharsis without having to share the actual misery. You’ll like this couple so you’ll want to see what they’ve been through, on both sides.