Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Movie Review: A Birder's Guide to Everything

I don’t know if it’s because our culture is so very youth-oriented, but most movies about adolescents set up at least one adult, and often most of them, to be clueless and unsympathetic. It’s as if adult writers see adolescence through a nostalgic glow and adulthood through an unforgiving lens that magnifies every flaw. Adults seem to be the main obstruction blocking youth from realizing their dreams and potential. In most coming-of-age movies, at least one parent figure is portrayed as utterly wrong-headed—the one who in the end finally figures out just how wonderful the poor, misunderstood kid was or, in the case of something like Romeo and Juliet or Dead Poets Society, tragically never does until it’s too late. Some coming-of-age films, such as Stand by Me, are very dark, painting the adult world as inescapably grim--youthful characters who get out of these movies alive are left disillusioned for life. Others, like Breaking Away, are peopled with disillusioned adults, some who damaged their children a lot, but somehow give the main characters, adults and youth, hope that life may still hold for them meaning and even joy.

A quietly lovely new movie by Rob Meyer, A Birder’s Guide to Everything, places much more nuanced and realistic youth and adults in a gentle tale of love and loss. This coming of age story rings utterly true. The movie takes place a year and a half after the mother of the main character, David (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has died. David and his father (James Le Gros) are so locked in their individual grief that neither has much understanding of the other’s pain. Now David’s father is about to marry the woman who had been his wife’s nurse. Who better than she can fully understand how much he's lost or can fully appreciate his grief and what he's suffered? His conscience is clear—they never got together until after his wife had died—but he has no clue that his son doesn’t realize that. And his son has no clue of the dimensions of his father’s grief.

David is absorbed with birds with the monomaniacal focus we geeks always seem to fixate on our passions, but he and his two best friends, who form the Young Birders Society at his high school, are not stereotypical geeks nor archetypes—they’re just three individual boys on the cusp of adulthood, joined by a shared fascination with birds. And the three young actors who play them are superb. They’ve developed all kinds of wonderfully specific geeky rituals that the movie wisely doesn’t explain—at some point they’d decided to follow Robert’s Rules of Order, and even in normal conversation, they switch over to it to resolve disputes. Peter (Michael Chen), the quietly assertive leader of the group, is the chairman of the club, and whenever the boys disagree, he calls for a vote. They speak in Latin whenever they don’t want to be understood by outsiders. The third member is Timmy (Alex Wolff), who is obsessed with sex and clueless about girls. This role could have been played for laughs and mere comic relief—a throwaway character to contrast with David as a sensitive soul—but the movie doesn’t reduce any of the characters to easy clichés—Timmy's vulnerability makes him no less obnoxious, and his obnoxiousness makes him no less sweet and sensitive in his own right. 

The Young Birders Society had had two other members—a girl who quit just before the movie starts, put off by Timmy’s insufferable sexual harassment (he kept calling her a Tufted Titmouse) and a boy who quits at the movie’s start because the girl left—Timmy scolds him that the birding club isn't a dating service. Now suddenly down to three members, the club’s existence is in jeopardy because the school requires officially recognized organizations to have a minimum membership of four.

At the start of the movie, David sees and takes an out-of-focus photo of what looks to him to be an odd duck. He brings the photo to the club to see if they want to help him try to relocate it. They vote against it, but by the next morning, studying his photo and what he remembers of the duck before it took off, David has researched the possibilities and concluded that it seems to be not just a rare species, but a Labrador Duck, a “Lazarus Species”—a bird considered extinct so, if verified, would be "brought back from the dead," so to speak. The three decide to consult an actual expert—Dr. Lawrence Konrad, an ornithologist played by Ben Kingsley.  Konrad is a wonderfully developed character—world-weary author of a book titled Look to the Skies, who was a close associate of David’s mother and famous for his own controversial discovery of another Lazarus species, an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 2005. The movie makes no bones about the fact that he couldn’t verify that sighting and that many ornithologists don't believe it. Konrad lost a leg in a long-ago accident while searching for a rare bird in the tropics, and lost his drivers license when he mistook a police car chasing him for an albino nighthawk—points he makes when he warns David not to consider him a role model.

Konrad agrees that although the photo is poor, it does support the possibility of a Labrador Duck. He points out on a map where he thinks a sea duck might be likely to be heading at this point in migration, and they pick a large lake in Connecticut as a reasonable place to search. Konrad emphasizes that the boys need a longer camera lens if they hope to get any sighting of it taken seriously. To accomplish this, David “borrows” a long lens from the school, and Ellen (Katie Chang), the girl who gave him the key to where it was stored, comes to his house to get it back. The boys are desperate and end up letting her tag along to photograph the bird. She has never birded before, and so naturally displays a certain bemusement about some bird names and confusion about how the boys know what each species is, but the movie plays this just right, never once working for a cheap laugh. She is sucked into watching the birds with exactly the kind of growing wonder I so often see in non-birders who for one reason or another end up on a birding jaunt.

I was very pleased with Ellen's character. She's just as geeky as the boys, with skills and expertise their little circle desperately needs, and when it becomes necessary, she jumps right in to speak Latin with them—the perfect way of establishing that she genuinely belongs in this insular little group. As a shy, geeky woman myself, one who had to work my own way into insular male birding cliques in my 20s and 30s, I particularly relished Ellen's role and Chang's performance. As a fully realized character, Ellen has a quiet dignity, intelligence, and her own longings and bewildering challenges. There are all kinds of tests nowadays to determine whether a movie shows gender bias, but the characterizations of both males and females (including David's dead mother) are so precise and nuanced that this film transcends the need for tests about stereotyping. The female roles are as robust as the male roles, David's dead mother and Konrad holding equal standing as the most admirable birders, and Ellen working her way into equal standing with the boys in terms of the Young Birders Society in an organic, human way rather than any kind of cliche'd or patronizing way. The movie is too quiet and realistic to pretend Timmy can undergo any kind of sea change in terms of his own sexism, but the movie paints that element of him in a very negative light even as Ellen rolls her eyes and ignores it—something girls and women in male-dominated fields learn to do even as we see clearly what jerks some individual men can be. Timmy does figure out that Ellen is a valuable part of the group and maybe, just maybe, he'll grow to start seeing other girls as human beings rather than sexual challenges to overcome.

Kenn Kaufman served as an ornithological consultant for the film and has a brief cameo—he has no lines, but plays an essential part in a lovely and pivotal moment. I love how the movie so seamlessly integrates appropriate bird songs in the background, and how the characters identify many of them but leave some unnoticed or unidentified. While they're camping, a Great Horned Owl hoots and Peter calls out the identification (and hey--it doesn't portend a death!!), but then a screech owl trills while they're in the middle of talking and no one notices. That made the scene the following morning somehow lovelier for me, when David discovers a beautiful red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl perched on a branch. And it was especially cool for me to see how elegantly a world-class birder like Kenn Kaufman can work magic with little moments in subtle ways that 99 percent of viewers may never notice at all, but ring wonderfully true for those of us in the know. Kingley's Konrad had lost his leg searching for a Pale-headed Brush-Finch in Ecuador. There was not a single sighting of the Pale-headed Brush-Finch between 1969 and 1998, making it a delightfully subtle and apt choice in a movie about a "Lazarus species." Indeed, the paper in the journal Cotinga  [11 (1999): 50–54] about the species' rediscovery in 1998 is titled, "Pale-headed Brush-Finch Atlapetes pallidiceps is not extinct."

Two dead birds figure prominently in the movie, but they’re not forced into a symbolic or precious movie cliché.  I particularly enjoyed the brief flashback scenes when David remembers birding with his mom--the hazy in and out flickerings were lovely and evocative without overdoing it. And the plot was simple, pulling the movie forward without becoming predictable. It was almost to be expected that competitors for the rare sighting would roar into the scene, but even with them (two only somewhat obnoxious birders in the extreme listing category), the movie reached its realistic climax and dénouement in a quietly organic way specific to its wonderfully fleshed-out characters. I was a little surprised that Konrad didn't instantly recognize one bird, but that seemed like the only birding flaw in the entire movie, and a very minor one at that.

As a birder, it’s cosmically satisfying to see a movie that is so spot-on about the vocabulary and feeling of birding. As a mother and a former teacher, it is wonderful to see a coming of age movie about realistic kids and adults. A Birder’s Guide to Everything holds together as a splendid movie for a general audience while honoring all the subtleties that the pickiest of birders could ask for.

The film has been released on iTunes (where I bought my copy), Amazon streaming, and various On Demand movie channels, and will soon be showing in some theaters. I hope Duluth’s Zinema shows it. This is a wiser and far more universal film than The Big Year was, as its second place audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival would attest. I give it two wings up.