Having gone to my fair share of film festivals, it is rare that I agree with the juries who award the prizes for “best of the fest.” They often see far more in films that I dismiss and frequently don’t give enough credence to those that I love, because as anyone knows my opinion is always correct (wink, wink). The one time I attended a fest that got it 100% was the 2004 Chicago International Film Festival when Nimrod Antal‘s mesmerizing Kontroll took home the Gold Hugo. Now, while I didn’t see every film at this year’s Indy Film Fest, Lance Edmands’ Bluebird was far and away my favorite of those that I saw and certainly worthy of the Grand Jury Prize, tops of the fest, as well as the American Spectrum Prize for the best film made by an American director (the Audience Award has yet to be awarded). So, bravo to the jury!
Bluebird spins the tale of a Northern Maine logging town where a paper mill supports the bulk of the town’s economy (or at least it seems). Bleak as the winter in which the film takes place, the town gives little hope to its residents. The film centers on one family of three – Lelsey (Amy Morton in an astonishing performance) is a seasoned veteran school bus driver, driving since her own daughter Paula (Emily Meade) started school. Her husband Richard (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) is a logger trying to make a living as the company he works for begins its slow decline into dissolution. Paula is a typically precocious teenager, fond of boys and booze, anything to numb the dull, cold winters both outside and within her family.
On what begins as a normal day, we see these three characters go through their daily routine – bus routes, school, the cutting down of trees. When Lesley finishes her day and begins the after school bus cleanup, she is distracted by the sight of a Bluebird in the bus and one can’t help but to mark the moment as significant as she cuts her inspection short. The next day when she boards her bus to start the day, she can see a boot sticking out of the end of one of the seats and she realizes one of the kids (Quinn Bard) never got off the bus, stuck there all night…in the dead of Maine’s winter. Not good – ambulance, police, questioning downtown and suspension of job.
What unravels for the rest of the film is how this scenario plays out, the repercussions reverberating in every sphere of their lives. What emerges, however, is warm in a way you may not expect. Interwoven into the fabric of Lesley, Emily and Richard’s tale is the story of the mother of the boy left on the bus, Marla (Louisa Krause). She is a mess – she drinks excessively, has indiscriminate sex, pops pills and has a general disdain for life and the world surrounding her…including her son Owen, on whose birth/existence she blames all of her problems. Her story is complex and frustrating. She was supposed to pick up Owen from the bus stop the day he stayed on the bus, but because she was too wasted, she forgot. Despite this, she is approached by an ambulance chasing attorney who coaxes her into pressing charges against Lesley, against her mother’s (Margo Martindale) wishes, which sets off another set of unexpected effects.
Bluebird is not a heartwarming story and thus not for everyone. It mirrors the bleakness and harshness of the landscape and the season in which it was shot so deftly by Jody Lee Lipes (also known for the great photography of Martha Marcy May Marlene). It echoes Atom Egoyan‘s The Sweet Hereafter, a film I would easily put in the top ten best of the 1990s, in tone and even bears some narrative resemblance, yet it stands on its own and makes us take notice. Morton‘s performance is virtuosic and helps remind us that we can sit and watch a film and still wonder if those on the screen are really acting or if they are really the character they are portraying. Louisa Krause‘s haggard, strung-out and ambivalent Marla is nearly as strong and worthy of notice. Couple these with the somber score of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, and you have the makeup of a really great film. Few are the first films that I’ve seen that stack up to Bluebird and for that Lance Edmands should be very proud. Having worked with the likes of Christine Vachon, Jim Jarmusch and Lena Dunham, we can only hope that Edmands builds off this effort and continues to makes films as great as this one. If he does, he should have a bright future ahead of him. Lucky for everyone, Bluebird just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign. so hopefully this film will be getting to a theater near you soon.