Sundance 2017: Jennifer Aniston Delivers 'Heart and Soul' in the Underwhelming War Epic 'The Yellow Birds'

Jennifer Aniston on December 7, 2016 in Westwood, California. Credit: Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images

2.5 stars (out of 4)

On February 11, Jennifer Aniston will turn 48 years old. She’s nearly 13 years removed from her last Friends episode. She hasn’t played a romantic-comedy lead since 2012.

So maybe it’s time to start taking her seriously as a dramatic actress.

In her latest admirable step in the other direction, the actress is a mom in distress in a war-is-hell epic called The Yellow Birds. The film itself, adapted from the 2012 novel, is a baffling piece of indie cinema that often languishes on screen. Aniston single-handedly delivers its heart and soul. The Yellow Birds premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21.

One other surprise about the role: It’s a supporting one. The drama, based on the 2012 novel, revolves around the friendship between two Army soldiers. Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) carries himself with a know-it-all swagger; Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan) is unpolished and introverted. Character nuances are nonexistent so the audience must trust that they form a bond, despite their uninteresting small talk.

Just before the boys are deployed to Iraq in the early 2000s, Daniel's mom, Maureen (Aniston), visits base camp for a big, happy group dinner. Sensing the personality differences, she takes Brandon aside and tells him to make her a promise. Please protect my son, she says. And if anything should happen to him, I want you to be the one to give me the news. He agrees. Maybe Aniston isn't the first choice to play a Texan mama (complete with Southern drawl!), but she wisely doesn't overplay it.  

The next time Aniston appears on screen, there’s been a time jump in the narrative. Daniel has been MIA for three weeks. And yet she just received a letter in the mail from him. How can this be? And why aren’t officials giving her any viable information?

These are the loose threads of an intriguing mystery. The whereabouts are dragged out in a nonlinear structure for the next hour — even though, judging from the film’s somber tone and meditative undercurrent, it’s obvious that Maureen’s boy is not holing up and catching up on old episodes of Lost. Instead, this central plot is teed up to showcase the horrors of war.

In scenes that could have been lifted from any war movie, the men shout at each other on rooftops and spill their blood and guts as they try to smoke out the enemy. A commanding officer (Jack Huston) barks orders like an overdrawn villain. The sequences are not relentless as much as they are repetitive. Whatever damning statement about war that director Alexandre Moors is trying to make here, it lands without much impact. 

This criticism isn’t intended to be a cavalier statement about what has transpired overseas. But in 2017, a film log line of “two Army soldiers grapple with their emotional demons in combat” is as obvious and oversimplified as “a nation tries to adapt to a new presidential administration.” Similarly themed gems ranging from American Sniper to The Hurt Locker have already covered this material with more poignancy.  

Aside from Aniston, the big draw here is Ehrenreich. Start learning how to spell his name now. He’s going to play a young Han Solo in the 2018 Star Wars picture — and based on this performance, it’s easy to see why he got the nod. The actor has a magnetic screen presence, and if you squint hard enough, traces of the Rebel pilot are visible. It’s not his fault that Brandon is woefully underdeveloped. In fact, there are more unsolved questions involving his character than that of his missing comrade. It's a mystery as to why he refuses to confide in his mom (Toni Collette). Or why he's being stalked by Jason Patric’s investigative officer. Or why this 21-year-old has a veteran’s confidence. His special relationship with Murphy — intended to be the driving force of the plot — is a casualty. At 110 minutes, the movie still unreels as if it were spliced to pieces in the editing room.

Ehrenreich’s climatic sit-down with Aniston toward the end of the film doesn’t close the loop on all the questions. But thanks to the skills of these actors, it does provide emotional heft. That will have to suffice for an underwhelming film that not only should have flied, it should have soared.