Title: A Birder’s Guide to Everything
Director: Rob Meyer
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alex Wolff, Katie Chang, Ben Kingsley, Michael Chen, James Le Gros, Daniela Lavender
Films that honestly and entertainingly assay the early teenage experience removed from lowest-common-denominator gross-out shtick and other emotional cattle-prodding are few and far between, which is a big part of the reason that the altogether charming “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” feels like such a breath of fresh air. Instead of pandering to one and only one sentiment, this offering — poised pleasantly between quaint and quirky — does entirely right by adolescent feeling, while also leading viewers on an adventure that puts just enough spin on the old familiar road trip formula.
Directed by Rob Meyer, the movie centers on David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 15-year-old birding fanatic who, along with classmates Peter Nessbaum (Michael Chen) and Timmy Barsky (Alex Wolff), makes up the entire membership roster of his school’s Young Birding Society. David’s love of birds was inherited from time spent with his late mother, and his father, Donald (James Le Gros), hasn’t taken the time to effectively bridge that gap and invest wholeheartedly in his son’s interests.
Of course, Donald is also busy getting ready to wed Juliana (Daniela Lavender), and it’s against this backdrop that an emotionally adrift David snaps a photo of a supposedly extinct duck that hasn’t been glimpsed in North America in over 100 years. After receiving some advice from an eccentric ornithologist, Dr. Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley), David, Peter and Timmy procure a car from Timmy’s cousin and embark on an epic if messily planned quest to track down the migrating bird. Also along for the ride, since she has the high-quality camera which they lack, is Ellen Reeves (Katie Chang, of “The Bling Ring”). Discoveries of an unexpected nature ensue.
Its title suggests a certain amount of preciousness, but “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” is both honest and earnest, without sacrificing its sense of humor. The screenplay, written by Meyer and Luke Matheny, is pitched at a perfect, slightly pubescent level that takes into account the libidinal surge of high school (Timmy talks constantly if generically of sexual conquest on the horizon, as yet unrealized) while also embodying the fact that feelings of attraction develop at different rates amongst friends, and before the tipping point of sexual drive turns urges into actions. David, for instance, is more freaked out than titillated when Juliana’s bathrobe slips open, flashing him. Later still, when David, in conversation with Ellen, refers to the acronym shorthand for bird identification — General Impression, Shape and Size — and it phonetically matches a certain slang for male ejaculate, the movie acknowledges the joke without grinding to a halt to overindulge in it. It’s a moment that feels perfectly real, and of the teenage experience, when oftentimes no party wants to elongate an awkward moment by harping on it.
The cast, too, is great, and it especially helps that they’re legitimately age-appropriate for their roles. Smit-McPhee (“The Road,” “Let Me In”) has a gangly quality that fits David without over-articulating any air-quote dorkiness. Wolff has a forward-leaning charisma that is nicely modulated, while Chang is lovely, in a very pleasing and yet altogether innocent way. And Kingsley, as a dispenser of advice who eschews role model status, is spot-on — just the sort of slightly off-center, non-blood-related character from whom young adults can glean a life lesson. There’s nary a false note to “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” — this is a very pleasing movie about adolescent travails that can play to audiences both younger and older.
NOTE: In addition to its theatrical engagements, “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” is also presently available on VOD platforms. For more information, visit the film’s Facebook page or its website, at www.ABirdersGuideToEverything.com.
Written by: Brent Simon