Three years ago, there was only one possible answer to the question “Can you name a movie, set in the dead of winter, in which various residents of a sleepy town cope with the aftermath of a tragic accident involving a school bus, and an attorney shows up to create additional discord by urging parents to litigate?” Now there are two, hard though it is to believe that nobody urged Lance Edmands, the writer-director of Bluebird, to avoid making a film so blatantly similar in both narrative and tone to Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. The unavoidable comparison does Bluebird no favors, which explains perhaps why 22 months have elapsed between its premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and its theatrical release. Earnestly well-intentioned and doggedly uncommercial, this is the kind of film that’s worth rooting for in principle, but a solid cast and evocative 35 mm photography can’t compensate for its slightly stultifying familiarity.
To be fair, Bluebird’s ambulance chaser (Christopher McCann) is a small part of the ensemble, not the tortured quasi-protagonist so memorably embodied by Ian Holm in Sweet Hereafter. Instead, this film’s primary focus falls on the bus driver, a Maine woman named Lesley (Amy Morton) who, distracted momentarily by the appearance of the titular bluebird in her bus, fails to perform her usual last-minute check of the vehicle before locking it up for the night. As it turns out, a kid was lying down asleep on one of the seats, and by the time Lesley discovers him the following morning, his body temperature is so low that he’s fallen into a hypothermic coma. Her horrific guilt over this incident shares screen time with the concerns of her husband, Richard (Mad Men’s John Slattery), who’s about to lose his logging job; their daughter, Paula (Emily Meade), who’s about to lose her virginity; and the comatose boy’s very young mother, Marla (Louisa Krause), who hires the attorney—over the objection of her own mother, Crystal (Margo Martindale)—despite having contributed to the tragedy by failing to pick her kid up after school.
Before making his directorial debut with Bluebird, Edmands worked as an editor on The Wire and various indie films (including Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, a connection that may explain why Adam Driver appears here in a totally negligible role as Marla’s co-worker/fuck buddy), and he exhibits an editor’s sense of rhythm throughout, deftly moving among his various narrative threads. Ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Afterschool, Martha Marcy May Marlene) shoots the Maine exteriors with a lush, soft graininess that digital formats simply can’t replicate. And the actors are uniformly strong. It’s Edmands’ screenplay that fails him—partly by coming across like warmed-up leftovers, but also by mistaking superficial moroseness for depth. Lesley does things like peeling potatoes more and more rapidly until she finally slips and cuts her finger, or deliberately closing her eyes while driving and crashing into a tree; her behavior is a (bad) writer’s notion of emotional paralysis, bearing little resemblance to how people function in the real world. Since Bluebird is otherwise devoted to naturalism, that’s a major problem. There’s abundant talent evident throughout the film, but originality and insight are in distressingly short supply.