The poster for Blue Valentine is misleading. It shows Ryan Gosling’s character Dean and Michelle Williams’ Cindy in a passionate embrace, full of the hope that their burgeoning romance promises. Six years and one child later, this passion has evaporated, replaced by a quiet tolerance for less than ideal circumstances. The quiet does not last for long.

Set in two distinct time periods, Blue Valentine shows both the beginning and the ending of their relationship. For a long time we only see the strained conversations, camera lingering on Cindy’s worn uniform and Dean’s paint-stained hands. It is not that the actors have aged visibly in appearance, apart from Dean’s receding hairline. It is in the slowness of their actions, as they seem to move carrying an invisible burden.

This sounds intolerable and at times this strain is uncomfortable to watch, but it is executed in a manner that is forthright and authentic. Much of this credit goes to the performances by Gosling and Williams, who manage to not only portray the strain of a relationship at its breaking point, but also to show the relationship at its most exuberant.

It turns out that the poster might hold some truth after all. Sometime within the film, the scenes abruptly jump to six years in the past with Dean carrying roguish charm and Cindy holding eyes full of promise for her future. As Dean serenades Cindy with his ukulele, surprising Cindy with his talent, a mutual awe develops, bursting into the sort of love that defies reason with its seemingly limitless happiness.

In these moments we forget the turmoil of Dean and Cindy’s relationship, making the inevitable return all the more heartbreaking. More tragic still is finding the seeds for their eventual discontent within these happy moments. It becomes clear that Cindy fell in love with Dean for the man he could have become, while Dean remained content to be the man he already was.

It would be easier in a film like this if one character was deemed good and the other bad, but Blue Valentine makes no such allowances. Emotional manipulations occur on both sides. Yet, everyone around Dean and Cindy takes sides, pulling their conflict into a feeling of inevitability. As Dean and Cindy fight against their separation, one gets the feeling that it is as futile as fighting gravity.

In an attempt to patch their relationship, Dean and Cindy take an evening off from their child to go to a love motel. It is here that they drink and attempt to remember the spark that brought them together in the first place. The memories of their early romance come flooding in, but they do not comfort. Instead, they remind each other of how much they have both lost.

It is this feeling of loss that gives Blue Valentine its power. It may not seem positive, but it is never less than honest. One gets the sense that this entire film was a labor of love by the filmmakers and the actors, and if their attempts to find truth sometimes strain it is never anything less than completely enthralling. For those who seek great cinema, it is mandatory viewing. For those who seek escapism, one might better look elsewhere.