A Birder’s Guide to Everything
Opens Fri., March 21 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated PG-13. 86 minutes.
If you took all the gore and necromancy out of a Stephen King story, you might get something like this small, sensitively observed teen adventure tale, where the only death is that of a wounded duck, its neck discreetly snapped out of camera’s view. (There are no sex or drugs, only a chaste first kiss.) Fifteen-year-old David (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Viggo’s son in The Road ) and his two best pals are avid ornithologists with their own school birdwatching club. Which is another way of stating the obvious: They’re outcasts, virgins, and nerds. Into their company, however, comes photographer Ellen (Katie Chang, possessing a Danesian assurance and transparency). David thinks he’s spotted an extinct duck, so the four pile into a “borrowed” VW and drive to a Connecticut lake, where they hope to make history. (The disputed re-emergence of the ivory-billed woodpecker is the obvious inspiration for this gentle story, directed and co-written by Rob Meyer.)
David’s mother, seen in flashback, has died of cancer. His father (the ursine James Le Gros) is about to remarry, perhaps the real reason for David’s flight before the wedding weekend. And David’s ornithologist mentor (Ben Kingsley) is a grouchy, one-legged Ahab figure who warns, “Do not confuse me with a role model.” Problem is, David really hasn’t got any template for his future self besides birding, medieval catapult building, and Latin club. (When the teens need to conference in secret, they huddle like Ovid—in dorkus unum.)
Three generations ago, this would’ve been a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew adventure. For boomers (now parents and even grandparents), it’ll read like Disney—only Disney isn’t making such simple, low-margin pictures anymore, free of special effects or hit songs. Birder’s Guide is an indie-film anomaly in today’s marketplace: predictable, pleasing, and more than a little passe—virtually extinct, in other words, like that odd, elusive duck.