You know how three-quarters of the way through most conventionally plotted movies it looks as if things couldn’t get more bleak for the protagonists? Lance Edmands’s haunted hard-times drama Bluebird starts at that point, and then sinks from there, seemingly out of some conviction that this is what life’s really like in small-town America.
So, within the first twenty minutes, a father (John Slattery) has learned his job’s going away, and his wife (a superb Amy Morton) discovers that one neglected child never got off the bus she drives after she parked it for the night — and, this being Maine, in winter, that kid’s now in a hypothermic coma. And then the bottom falls out on all these lives, again, and on all the lives they touch: Nobody in this film can even begin to conceive of improving their lot or communicating meaningfully with anyone else. If writer-director Edmands believes this is how stunted people actually are, I’d like to ask him how he, a person, got it together to make this, his first feature — which, for all its piteousness, is often moving, always well acted, and distinguished by rare stillness and beauty.
The location shooting is wonderful, and Edmands displays a strong sense of milieu and a rare attentiveness to his characters’ relationship to their work: The movie’s worth seeing for its scenes of logging and mill-life, of driving that school bus, of schlepping food at a diner, of shrugging into a smock to price junk at a discount store. Edmands crafts a stellar essay-montage on the pulping of trees into paper — why is it so rare for fiction films set in a real world to show us anything of what the real world is like? And he makes a suspenseful late-film highlight out of everyday life in Maine: driving on ice as sleet drizzles down. (Much credit to Jody Lee Lipes, the cinematographer, whose matter-of-fact compositions capture the harshness and the appeal of rural winters with minimal fuss.)
Of the often catatonic-looking characters, Morton is the most natural and affecting — her performance is invisible, and all we see is this good woman coming unwound after her momentary distractedness allows a disaster. Emily Meade frumps winningly through tender-sad scenes as her daughter, stunned that her life has somehow gotten worse, and Louisa Krause does what she can as the passive, disinterested mother of the boy in a coma. But they all just bob there, entirely stubbed out, like cigarette ash a smoker has dropped into the last dregs of a beer can. Individual moments are terrific, but the whole makes it hard not to ask, “Yes, but what about life being a miserable slog?”