The impact of tragedy is concentrated, more devastating in a small town where everybody knows everybody else. That’s especially true in the failing, wintry Maine logging town of Lance Edmand’s impressive directorial debut, Bluebird. In a place such as this, there are few escapes from the harshness of reality. Work is tedious and unrewarding; recreation amounts to ice fishing or getting drunk at the local bar. As a Maine native, Edmands brings a deep-rooted awareness and sadness to Bluebird, creating a fully-realized if somber world in which everybody is looking for a little bit of light in the darkness.
One of those desperate people is Lesley (Tony-winner Amy Morton), a genuinely good woman with a respectable job as an elementary school bus driver. The children are a bright spot in her life as her husband Richard (John Slattery) has become increasingly isolated over the years. Their marriage has gone from comfortable to distant, and with his job at the mill in jeopardy things aren’t getting better. Even their teenaged daughter Paula (Emily Meade) is missing something in her life, which she tries to fulfill in the company of a boy who may not reciprocate her feelings.
Through all of this, Lesley is a good person. When a boy forgets his winter cap she doesn’t hesitate to give him hers. But good people still make mistakes, and when an errant bluebird distracts her from emptying the bus thoroughly after a shift, she fails to see a sleeping child in one of the far back seats. When he’s discovered the next day, frozen and in a coma, it threatens to shatter the meager existence she has. A tragedy like this touches many, none more so than the boy’s deadbeat mother, Marla (Louisa Krause), who barely has any communication with her son. She’s the kind of irresponsible parent who misses chances to see her child, forgets when to pick him up, and drops the responsibility of parenting on her mother (Margo Martindale). If it doesn’t involve alcohol or drugs, Marla doesn’t seem all that interested. However she briefly perks up when a lawyer starts talking about the money she can make from the accident.
Bluebird moves at a casual pace but it isn’t slow or boring; there’s too much going on for that to ever be the case. Edmands has captured the sleepy mood and tenor of rural life, and it allows him to explore each story development to the fullest without resorting to overdone melodrama. While dialogue is economical, silence speaks volumes in a film such as this. Fading dreams, quiet resentments, hidden secrets, crippling guilt…all pass with barely a sound in the space between anguished people looking for emotional connection. Shot and scored with a frigid starkness by the people behind Martha Marcy May Marlene, one can’t help but feel for these terribly isolated, lonely people.
It’s already hard to believe that such a confident, nuanced film is the work of a first-time director, but that Edmands was able to get such tremendous performance is another feather in his cap. Make no mistake; part of a director’s job is giving the talent the right tools to succeed, and clearly he has done that. Everybody does strong work here, starting with Morton who embodies Lesley’s guilt-ridden emotional spiral. Slattery tucks away his Mad Men cool to believably play a blue-collar guy racked by years of back-breaking work with little to show for it. But the stand out is Krause, playing what can be considered a “continuation” of her breakout role as a troubled, promiscuous teen in the indie drama Toe to Toe. She’s got the goods to be a star and a performance like this should, and hopefully will, open more doors. The same can be said of Edmands, who establishes himself as an incredibly skilled director to keep a close watch on. While the conclusion is a touch unsatisfying, it’s clear Edmands wants us to keep thinking about these characters and where they will go. Bluebird isn’t just a great first effort, it’s just a great movie, period. We can’t allow movies the quality of Bluebird to fly under the radar.