Subtle, nuanced and absorbing, Lance Edmands’ directorial debut “Bluebird” is a remarkable first feature and wise beyond his and its years. Carefully shot, well-observed and featuring terrific performances from an excellent slate of experienced, yet largely unknown actors (aside from the “Mad Men” and HBO stars), “Bluebird” is an affecting and moving examination of family, mothers, connectedness and the ripple effect of tragic consequences.
In the cold, wintry northern corners of a small decaying logging-town in Maine, a local school bus driver Lesley (Amy Morton, Tony winner for “August: Osage County”) goes about her day -- driving kids back and forth from school. Her distant husband of 20 years, Richard (John Slattery), is elsewhere, preoccupied with the imminent closing of the paper mill that sustains this town and will eventually affect his logging job. Their teenage daughter Paula (Emily Meade) is also disaffected, struggling with boys, sex and the estrangement of her parents who’s comfortable marriage has backslid into an alienated one. She’s also desperately seeking some kind of connection.
One evening, Lesley is performing her routine check of her bus at the end of the day for food, left over hats and scarves and other detritus from the children, when a bluebird suddenly appears in her bus. Chirping and startling, Lesley is struck by the image of the bird, becomes distracted and forgets her job all together. A chill is coming to these frozen woods, so Lesley is also quick to return to her family where they eat quiet, silent meals, not really engaging or acting like a family that feels together.
While Lesley’s family are detached to one another, we’re also introduced to Marla (Louisa Krause), a young woman working a dead-end restaurant job who indulges in booze and weed every second she can seemingly to cope from her own existence. She pals (and sleeps) with her co-worker and maybe boyfriend Walter (Adam Driver), but their relationship seems rooted in sex and mutual self-destructive intoxication.
But Lesley soon discovers her innocent mistake is tragic and will eventually shatter the balance of the community. A young boy is found in the back of her bus, half frozen and on the verge of death. In a type of hypothermic coma, boy, it turns out, is the child of Marla, a type of deadbeat mother who has scammed her way into letting her own mother Crystal (Margo Martindale) take most of the responsibility of the child.
As the fall out of this catastrophe unfolds, both families are impacted by the tragedy and become drawn closer and closer to one another. Marla and her mother explore the option of lawyers – even though Marla was drunk and wasn’t there to pick up her son – and Lesley herself becomes withdrawn, frail and emotionally comatose in her own way. Left to step up for their ailing matriarch is Richard and Paula, but the two family members are constantly at odds with one another.
Probably the closest analog one could point to is David Gordon Green’s “Snow Angels,” but to be honest the much more subdued “Bluebird” makes that snowy drama look like a total Hollywood endeavor in comparison. Mind you, it’s also a film I think is great too, but it also uses violence as a dramatic crescendo whereas “Bluebird” is much more honest and less melodramatic about the organic and natural direction where the narrative needs to take these characters. “Bluebird” is about connection, and the painful lack thereof in our lives. Estrangement and family plays a huge theme and these dynamic acts as a wonderful tension in the picture, but also an moving emotional framework when some finally members in this narrative are able to circumvent their differences.
The bluebird device in the film, strangely enough, while an interesting evocative metaphoric element is perhaps the most unnecessary – a conceit convention you only see in the movies. While it recurs and acts as a lingering mechanism to haunt Lesley, and her slowly fraying mental state and guilt-induced numbness, actress Amy Morton is so terrific she needs no such tool and sells her circumstance regardless.
Equally fantastic is the great supporting cast. Slattery is exceptional at silently communicating the tough slog of 15 thankless years of logging in the cold, and Krause, the damaged and dysfunctional mother is outstanding and one to watch. Similarly striking is Emily Meade as the teenager struggling with her isolation and lack of place in the world.
Geography is elemental to the picture, and the look and aesthetics are paramount to the bitter tone of the movie. Shot by Jody Lee Lipes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), “Bluebird” has a beautifully stark and disquieting look full of grain, dark contrast and low-lit light that isn’t afraid to look unpretty. His cinematography captures the chill in the air, and the anxiety that strikes from this unfortunate calamity. There’s also an abstract quality to lingering shots of paper mills, forests and snowfall that are thoughtful and curious, but never sentimental or overly lyrical.
Scored by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (“Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Simon Killer”), their simple, mildly eerie, yet effective work also adds some incredibly layered levels of mood and poignant texture. Meanwhile, director Lance Edmands, the writer and director of his effort and the editor of Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” crafts an superbly restrained, adult and thoughtful picture – you would never guess in a million years that this was made by a first time feature-length filmmaker. Considered and nuanced, Edmands resists all levels of melodrama and sentimentality in “Bluebird” and yet the picture is just as arresting and emotional as any drama I’ve seen this year, albeit in a quiet manner. There’s an assured quality to this contemplative picture that never gets in the way of its actor and narrative and it’s exciting to find a new discovery like Edmands.
A terrifically solid and sturdy effort across the board, “Bluebird” is the real deal and a true package of strong collaborators coalescing to make a wonderful debut film. While primarily dealing with interconnectedness, “Bluebird” is also about sense of place and belonging and the exact opposite. In “Bluebird” a bird has not flown south, a mother is troubled and another mother is irrevocably affected. Drawing such straight lines to outcomes would seem pat if Edmands film wasn’t so intangible and graceful about its relations. [B+]