Sundance 2011: 'Little Birds' is Generic & Contrived But Well Acted
by Ethan Anderton
January 26, 2011
The "coming-of-age" story has become a genre unto itself. Stories of teen angst, young love, and reckless mischief show up every single year, especially at the various film festivals. Therefore, it's no surprise that Little Birds, the feature film debut of writer/director Elgin James finds itself at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. This time around the characters coming into their own are 15-year old girls Lily (Juno Temple of Kaboom) and Alison (Kay Panabaker of "No Ordinary Family") living in a desolate town on the shores of the Salton Sea. Their friendship is tested by hormones and danger, but unfortunately, so was my patience.
In a barren town near the Salton Sea, Lily and Alison spend their time riding bikes and dressing up in homemade clothes from Lily's aunt (a character that doesn't make good use of Kate Bosworth). While Alison is content with staying in one place and gradually growing up, Lily is in a mad-dash away form her home town and will follow anybody out of it, even if it might be in the wrong direction. Enter three older skateboarder teen boys who are messing around in an abandoned in-ground pool. Lily is enamored by Jesse (Kyle Gallner of Red State) immediately and ends their meeting with a kiss before he and the boys head back to Los Angeles.
Uninterested in any of the older boys, Alison begins to see a side of her friend that she's never seen before. Though Lily has always been mouthy with her mother and steals the occasional cigarette, now she's trying to team-up with Alison to joyride in a family friend's truck and venture into LA to meet the boys. Reluctant but curious and loyal to her friend, Alison sets off (against her better judgment) with Lily and the two are in for a life-changing journey that will have them growing up more in two days than some do their whole lives. The story takes a turn that is shocking, but a bit unbelievable and over-the-top.
While Panabaker and Temple deliver emotional performances, at times I felt the actresses (both in their early 20's) were trying too hard to appear 15-years old. Both look younger than their age naturally, but at times their immaturity seemed forced. This doesn't ruin their performances as their chemistry and friendship-turned-sour feels all too real, but it's a difficulty that comes from using older actresses to play teens. Of course, when the actresses are over 18, you can get away with a lot more (both in production and certain adult-themed story details).
In addition, the angst and aggression from Lily seems to be unfounded (though many teens have this issue), and I found myself not understanding just what her damn problem was all of a sudden. It's pointed out that she once cut herself and her father killed himself (though we don't know how long ago), but she seems to take this all out on her mother (Leslie Mann) for no apparent reason. It's unclear why Lily is acting out. She doesn't want attention because she turns her mother away whenever she attempts to be affectionate, and she just seems to be angry for the sake of being angry.
Maybe because I didn't grow up as a confused teenage girl, I'm not entirely tuned in to the challenges these two girls are facing. However, some of the lengths that Lily goes to just to feel free are a bit extreme, and I'm not so sure Alison would even think about going along with them. Peer pressure is a difficult obstacle to overcome but the questionable acts that make-up the second half of the movie would be more than enough for a 15-year old female version of myself to slap Lily, and head back to the Salton Sea. A decent soundtrack and some cool locations and cinematography kept my attention, but as a whole, I found myself bored with the familiar coming-of-age tale in Little Birds.
Ethan's Sundance Rating: 5 out of 10