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NEW YORK – Given that its chain of sorrow is set in motion by an accident involving a school bus, it’s likely that writer-director Lance Edmands’ Bluebird will draw comparison to Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. But this gentle, soulfully acted drama has its own distinct identity, bringing a potent sense of place to its wintry Maine locations and a penetrating gaze to blue-collar characters in a depressed mill town. Despite threatening to overload on melancholia, the modest film maintains emotional integrity through to its final note of hope.
An editor who cut Lena Dunham’s breakout feature Tiny Furniture, Edmands has smartly recruited that film’s cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, whose brooding visuals were a big part of the atmospheric grip of Martha Marcy May Marlene. His somber work here is just as sharply attuned to nuances of tone and setting. The industrial sequences of lumber being pulped and processed into paper that wordlessly bookend the film are especially eloquent. Taking his cue from a Thoreau quote at the start, Lipes’ widescreen images underscore the characters’ ties to nature, which can be beautiful or unyielding.
A solid, no-frills type who is conscientious and caring in her job as a school bus driver, Lesley (Amy Morton) is distracted one January day during her inspection at the end of the route by a bluebird fluttering about inside the vehicle. She fails to notice a sleeping boy, Owen (Quinn Bard), on one of the rear seats, only discovering him the next morning when he is rushed to hospital in a hypothermic coma. Suspended from work and questioned for negligence, Lesley withdraws into a stunned shell, barely registering the concern of her husband Rich (John Slattery). A local logger, he is troubled by the threat to his job with the paper mill closing.
Owen’s mother Marla (Louisa Krause) is not without fault, given that she was sucking back beer and pills when she should have been picking her son up for his weekly sleepover. The boy lives with his grandmother Crystal (Margo Martindale), whose calls to check in on him went unanswered. When an ambulance-chasing lawyer (Christopher McCann) approaches Marla with the promise of financial compensation, she ignores Crystal’s wishes and presses charges.
Keeping exposition spare, Edmands’ storytelling displays a pleasing economy of means, and an empathetic handle on characters all flawed in one way or another, existing in self-imposed solitude.
Lesley’s isolation is driven by guilt and shock, but her burdens go back further into the past. Rich’s record as a husband is not unblemished. Also, he lacks the understanding to communicate effectively with their teenage daughter Paula (Emily Meade), who reaches out to her immature boyfriend (Brandon Wardwell) for an intimate connection that’s missing at home. On the other side of the conflict, Marla is a self-pitying burnout who was unprepared to be a parent. There’s little evidence of love in her relationship with her mother Crystal, who has her own difficult history.
The film’s defining restraint falters in the later action when repercussions start stacking up too portentously. But the quiet performances, evocative images of the snowbound setting, and fluid editing by Dino Jonsater keep the story absorbing. Its casual depiction of a struggling community in tough times also resonates. And in a welcome choice, Bluebird steers clear of the expected legal scenes and moralizing, instead focusing on the tentative steps of the traumatized family to regroup.
A veteran of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company – known on Broadway for her searing turn in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and as Martha opposite Letts’ George in the knockout recent revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Morton never strikes a false note in a performance that’s all the more affecting for being so measured. Audiences who know Slattery only as cocky, unencumbered Roger on Mad Men will find a more sober persona in his lived-in character here.
Krause brings emotional rawness, Martindale adds authenticity to anything in which she appears, and Meade shows delicate vulnerability. Adam Driver (Girls) turns up briefly as a flaky kitchen hand with a yen for ambivalent Marla.
Minor-key melodic music by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi is used to evocative effect, as are vintage pop, folk and country tracks, notably The Fleetwoods’ gorgeous “Tragedy” on the end credits.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Production companies: Rooks Nest Entertainment, Washington Square Films, Nomoore Productions, Act Zero Films, SeeThink Films, Greencard Pictures, The Van der Kaay Trust, Idyll, Killer Films
Cast: Amy Morton, John Slattery, Louisa Krause, Emily Meade, Margo Martindale, Adam Driver, Brandon Wardwell, Stephen Payne, Christopher McCann, Quinn Bard
Director-screenwriter: Lance Edmands
Producers: Kyle Martin, Garrett Fennelly, Alex Schepsman
Executive producers: Susan Shopmaker, Michael Sackler, Julia Godzinskaya, Emily Wiedeman, Julien Gaubert, Laura Heberton, Andrew Neel, Wil O’Leary, Christine Vachon
Director of photography: Jody Lee Lipes
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Music: Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi
Costume designer: David Tabbert
Editors: Dino Jonsater
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No rating, 91 minutes
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