Alan James (Rip Torn) is a middle-age alcoholic with a mean temper, which is to say that he's a record producer. A legend within his Memphis milieu and, by implication, beyond it he's a figure of dread at work and at home: The aura of folksy humility he puts on for tribute dinners evaporates when he's faced with a mild challenge, a beverage or both. A tantrum Alan throws over the placement of drums at a studio session is our first inkling of how bad his bad behavior can get and why his mournfully hot Russian girlfriend (Dina Korzun) spends the preponderance of Forty Shades of Blue dulling the pain of her tagalong status while slowly warming to the idea of stepping out from under his thumb. (Did I mention that Mr. Industry Treasure is flagrantly unfaithful? Do I even have to?)
Korzun's Laura has borne Alan a young son, but he also has a grown boy, Michael (Darren E. Burrows), whose contact with the old man is extremely limited. When Michael arrives for a rare visit, he and Laura identify each other as kindred spirits united by their disappointment in a man who's an inadequate father figure to both of them. Blue makes compelling drama of this Freudian triangle, though it does so in an understated way that reveals essential relationships by implication and keeps festering grievances largely unspoken. It's like Altman with less characters a scaled-down companion piece to Nashville.
Torn's performance is predictably excellent, capturing the subliminal self-loathing of larger-than-life types for whom no amount of success will ever be enough. The portrayal that must have clinched Blue's Sundance Grand Jury Prize, though, is Korzun's. Via meaningful looks and broken English, she establishes that Laura's foreign-bred practicality moves her to excuse the profuse deficiencies of a partner who is that oldest-school of sops, "a good provider." While the movie's narrative through line is her developing attraction to Michael, its true pull is watching her gradually recognize that one can ask more from life than creature comforts. With that much as stake, a viewer can excuse the movie its recurrent ambiguities and slow, ruminative pace: Nobody gets actualized overnight.