Comparisons to Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter will likely plague Lance Edmands’ Bluebird, thanks to the films’ similar subject matter – both are set in snowy small towns, both center on a tragedy that occurs on a school bus, both find their drama in the aftermath – but Edmands’ new feature quickly finds its own footing and announces the arrival of a talented new independent filmmaker. Bluebird approaches its seemingly familiar plotline with a tighter focus than Egoyan’s, as Edmands spends the majority of his film with school bus driver Lesley (Amy Morton), a kind and well-intentioned woman whose life is destroyed by a minor moment of distraction. During an end-of-shift bus check, a trilling bluebird draws Lesley’s attention away from the task at hand, with the hautning consequences of her bird-watching not revealed until late the next morning.
Lesley is, however, not the only person at fault in Bluebird (the accident at the center of the film is a unique and jarring one, and is best revealed within the film), though she is the one most obviously culpable. While Lesley is absorbed with the titular bluebird, across town young Marla (Louisa Krause) is similarly engaged, but with depression, drugs, and drinks. As with Lesley, we do not know the full extent of Marla’s negligence until many hours later. Lesley and Marla’s small, twin mistakes bloom outward, and Bluebird maps the fallout from common missteps in an unforgiving world. It is, simply put, deeply heartbreaking.
The film is a slow burn, and Edmands isn’t afraid of letting Bluebird both wallow in and romanticize something that’s often hard to satisfyingly convey in cinema: just how boring real life can be. While tragedy and heartbreak are inevitable in Bluebird, Edmands takes his time with the film, introducing us to the minutiae of both Lesley and Marla’s lives, building in a subplot about the blossoming of Lesley’s teen daughter’s romantic life, showing us the logging lifestyle of Lesley’s husband (John Slattery), before pulling the rug on everything and everyone. The film’s screenplay is punctuated by unfolding character insights that steadily build on our understanding of the film’s various characters without relying on clumsy exposition or expected surprises.
And yet, for all its lovely scripting and beautiful cinematography (the film was lensed by Jody Lee Lipes, who also shot the similarly striking Martha Marcy May Marlene), what’s most remarkable about Bluebird is its consistently solid performances, many of which frequently approach just flat-out greatness. Morton is the main draw here, and she turns in a performance that’s built on nuance and genuine emotion; it’s stripped down, solid work. Krause too does a marvelous job with a difficult role that could easily be played as the villain in a film that really doesn’t actually have one. The supporting members of the cast, including Meade, Margo Martindale, and Slattery, also turn in hard work that they make look easy.
The Upside: Beautifully lensed, beautifully acted, beautifully written, Bluebird is a heartbreakingly beautiful film about the consequences of an ordinary life.
The Downside: Stalls out for a bit in the middle; the film might strike some moviegoers as a bit too slow-moving to really capture attention.
On the Side: The film is Edmands’ feature debut, though he has also worked as an editor, including on Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and television series The Wire.