Lance Edmands’ debut film Bluebird is inspired by the Robert Frost poem, “The Last Word of the Blue Bird.” As he summates, “the poem tells the story of a little girl named Lesley who finds a bluebird, which she befriends. But when winter comes, the bird tells her that it must fly south.” The bird must escape the inhospitable environment of the wintry north if it hopes to survive. Edmands says, “The poem was used to teach children about loss.” It is exactly this loss and striving to find an environment to live in that he captures in his film.
Set in the wintry lands of northern Maine (there seem to be a lot of films with snowy settings at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival), Lesley (Amy Morton) drives the town school bus. While cleaning it one afternoon a bluebird mythically appears, distracting her from one important fact: there’s a child asleep on the bus. After she discovers the boy the following morning the doctors are able to resuscitate the child into a state only slightly better than a coma: “profound hypothermia.” Devastated by what’s she’s let happen, Lesley begins to confront her existence.
Part of that existence is her husband Richard (John Slattery), an unhappy lumberman in a failing business. He’s just as dissatisfied with life as Lesley, although he’s known it for much longer. Another part of that existence is her teenage daughter Paula (Emily Meade). Already checked out of her family life, Paula is searching for some feeling, some way to deal with her future. The entire family reacts to this tragedy in different ways, and slowly they realize ways to liberate themselves from their stupors.
Meanwhile, suddenly finding herself stuck in a hospital room, the boy’s mother Marla (Louisa Krause) is beginning to experience some introspection as well. She was too busy drinking; singing karaoke (Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World”); and passing out in a bathtub full of water to notice that she hadn’t picked up her son (a task she only does every other week, no less). Her mother Crystal (Margo Martindale) is there to watch over the boy, as per usual, while Marla stalks around the small space complaining. It’s not until a run-in with a skeezy lawyer and an apology-turned-confrontation with Lesley that she begins to wake up from her own (drug-induced) stupor.
Edmands purposefully sets the story in this dying one-mill town to evocate an “eroding way of life.” The town feels stuck in time, completely separated from modernity. So it’s no wonder that the characters feel stuck, trapped within themselves. The starkness of the setting conveys it all. No wonder that bluebird wants to fly south—but will any of the other characters?
While Edmands did a great job of creating this frozen town, it would be nothing without the people inhabiting it. His carefully selected ensemble cast fits into this world effortlessly. Amy Morton (last seen on Broadway in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is the complete opposite of Martha. As her world begins to crumble, she reels into herself, unable to cope—and Morton conveys that better than most. Louisa Krause has a breakout performance, hitting notes of despair, recklessness, and rage while still being a very sympathetic character. Emily Meade’s performance is a sensation as well. She’s thoughtful yet exacting; she steels herself when necessary but knows when to break down. These women really carry the film. They’re the ones you most hope will unstick themselves.
Of course, John Slattery and Margo Martindale are equally impressive (even if it’s less surprising). Slattery has shed off the sliminess of Roger Sterling to create the endearingly flawed father figure (although he couldn’t quite shed the tendency towards adultery). Martindale is just the figure needed to put Marla in her place, although she can’t be too harsh because of her own past. Adam Driver even pops up as Marla’s more-than-friend, a bit of release when she grows weary of avoiding her son.
At first glance, Bluebird may appear slow and dreary—but that’s a good thing (for this film, at least). We get a chance to enter these characters’ lives, see how stuck they are. Then they are suddenly submerged in tragedy and must learn to find their way out. And there is that glimmer of light at the end, the hope that things may really be OK. Maybe the bluebird will lead them to a more hospitable environment.