The setting of Lance Edmands’s polished yet plodding Bluebird—a frozen, industrial town in Maine—creates an ideally insular arena from which to observe the lives of its residents. Edmands moves his emotionally confused pawns around a wintry milieu that has nothing to give its citizens beyond copious lumber and dreary futures—the landscape made even chillier by Jody Lee Lipes’s elegant yet predictably blue-hued lensing. Comparisons to Atom Egoyan’s sublime The Sweet Hereafter are inevitable, as Edmands attempts to weave a short-story-stitched tapestry of families unraveled by a tragic incident involving a school bus, but he shouldn’t have to worry about Egoyan calling to ask for his ’90s aesthetic back. The result more clearly echoes a sub-par Altmanesque ensemble piece disguised as an ostensibly intimate, long take-heavy mood movie. Unable to reconcile plot with poetry, Bluebird is knitted together by its sense of place and lived-in performances, yet unraveled by anemic false melodrama and overbearing music.
Lesley (Amy Morton) is a benevolent, simple sort, satisfied by her woodworking husband, Richard (John Slattery), and teenage daughter, Paula (Emily Meade). While performing a routine check as school bus driver after returning students home, she finds herself preoccupied by the presence of a bluebird inside the bus. This distraction, she discovers the next morning, caused her to overlook a child hiding in the back of the bus, who went into hypothermic shock after sleeping overnight in the freezing bus. The child’s mother, Marla (Louisa Krasue), is a careless twentysomething party girl who was responsible for picking up her son that day, since the boy’s main caretaker, Marla’s religious mother (Margo Martindale), could not. Consequently, Lesley is overwhelmingly depressed by the state of the boy’s health and the prospect of litigation. Marla, however, blithely bounces between unconcerned hospital visits, chats with a lawyer, and her typical booze-and-cigarette-filled lifestyle.
Despite the film’s contemporary setting, the characters’ lives more closely reflect those of a bygone time—their conditions having remained unchanged due to the complete lack of outside cultural influences. Bluebird, however, is too schematic to work as an emotionally astute elegy to an existence on the verge of disappearing, as Edmands is unable to unearth and project the messy inner lives of his archaic characters, who are lazily expressed through small-town clichés. Indeed, the more we learn about them, the less interesting they become. Marla is headstrong, but despite Krause’s attempts to illuminate an archetype that exists in backwoods locations across America, she’s asked by the conventional script to express lame lamentations about being an opportunity-less teenage mother (“I had a scholarship to U Maine for music”). Paula, possessing all the angst and yearning that could fill a million diaries, is saddled with a bland coming-of-age subplot, which mostly consists of her skipping class and losing her virginity. Lesley’s nihilistic paralysis is eminently apparent, yet she spends most of the second half of the film staring into space, pondering whether anyone else can hear the infernal bluebird chirps. Meanwhile, Richard is limited to a stock hardened father figure, which most offensively sacks Slattery with an incongruous scene involving a former mistress we only briefly meet.
This scenario is highly representative of Bluebird’s occasionally risible drama, which intends to build dimension and incite tension, but instead simply labors a purported intensity that never fully registers. Even more heavy-handed are the moments Edmands pauses to focus on details, such as Lesley throwing away her breakfast due to her depression-filled lack of appetite; these images linger, but the awareness of their intended poignancy is stronger than the emotion they’re meant to elicit. Bluebird posits itself as a contemplative film of silences, yet the result is nothing more than a cacophonous, lifeless mess of human entropy.