In “Bluebird,” the audience is the sole witness to the unexpected avian visitor that distracts a bus driver from discovering the student left sleeping among her empty benches. Separated from its flock, the poor bird should have flown south long ago; the boy, meanwhile, goes overlooked until morning, when he is rushed to the hospital with severe hypothermia. Examining all those “responsible” for the child’s well-being, Lance Edmands’ fragile, arthouse-bound debut stands in direct contrast with its weary, working-class characters and the subzero Maine winter against which their story unfolds — a mournful throwback to more poetically inclined times.
Had “Bluebird” been accepted into Sundance, the attention might have given this modest, minutely observed salt-of-the-earth portrait a shot in a theatrical scene relatively unforgiving toward regional mood pieces (“Ballast,” “Shotgun Stories”). Premiering instead at Tribeca, it’s a diamond in the rough, and will rely on the attention of critics and other fests to attract any sort of following. Even if no one sees it, Edmands’ sensitive approach would do his NYU professors proud, reflecting the school’s emphasis on anthropological detail over conventional narrative.
Played with tortured reservation by terrific stage actress Amy Morton (Tony-nominated for “August: Osage County”), Lesley, the guilt-stricken bus driver, is but one of the blue-collar souls thrown into turmoil by the incident. Oddly, the boy’s mother, Marla (Louisa Krause), appears to be the least affected, having neglected to collect her son from the bus stop after school. The child’s grandmother (Margo Martindale), his principal caregiver, patiently attends his hospital bedside, while the driver’s lumberjack husband, Richard (John Slattery), and daughter Paula (Emily Meade) cope with Lesley’s distress as best they can.
Edmands evenhandedly observes this small group of characters in Millinocket, Maine, opening with a quotation from Thoreau’s “Ktaadn” that extols the region’s unspoiled wilderness, before revealing the inner workings of the town’s Grand Northern Paper Co. While Thoreau might have recoiled to see the “violence” the logging business does to his Maine woods, the film is more focused on the decline of the local economy, capturing everything in stately, arm’s-length widescreen on that endangered format of 35mm. (His strongest asset is “Martha Marcy May Marlene” d.p. Jody Lee Lipes, whose haunting compositions invite the emotional detective work needed to fully appreciate the pic’s subtle style.)
So many small-town indies fret about whether the younger generation can escape their dead-end existence and chase experience elsewhere. Here, only teenage Paula is still young enough to get out, and besides, this particular elegy is more about getting by; “Bluebird” respects the values of these stalwart all-American types, even as it recognizes the compromises they all make. In one of the film’s rare on-the-nose moments, Paula asks her b.f., “Do you ever worry that you’re gonna turn into your parents?”
In true “penny for your thoughts” fashion, nearly all the characters’ others concerns go unspoken, though Edmands establishes their concerns ably enough to remove unnecessary ambiguity. Richard fears losing his lumber job next season; Lesley seems as perturbed by the accident as she is by the fact that she was absent-minded enough to let it happen; and Marla’s melancholy comes through even when she’s out at the bars, selecting Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” (of all songs) for karaoke. Her son’s fate seems almost incidental until the film’s final moments.
His specific tragedy recalls Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” but just insofar as “Bluebird” examines the repercussions of a bus-related accident on a tiny community. Stylistically, it has more in common with a multi-character film like “Magnolia” (albeit on a smaller scale) and might have benefited from a similar narrative energy. Instead, Edmands maintains too measured a pace as he cycles through the various lives affected, to the extent that one begins to wonder when things will start kick in. And then it’s over, with six lives immeasurably changed, left to face tomorrow however best they can manage.