Review of Little Birds


Movie Reviews: "Little Birds"

-- Rating: R (pervasive language, violence including sexual assault, sexuality, nudity, drug and alcohol use involving teens)
Length: 96 minutes
Release Date: January 23, 2011
Directed by: Elgin James
Genre: Drama

"Little Birds" was a quiet entry at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival that didn't get a lot of attention, though it should have. It is about the story of two bored teens in a small town who crave for the excitement of the big city, but there are a few elements that raise this film above the usual. The first is that it is beautifully shot by cinematographer Reed Morano. Second, rarely do coming-of-age stories contain a performance as raw and effective as that of Juno Temple's.

Temple stars as Lily, a teen who was born and raised in Salton Sea, California. The name of the town is misleading, since it is not actually by the sea at all. Instead, it is an inland city that has a dried up lakebed where a salt lake used to be. The desiccated lakebed is something of a metaphor for life in Salton Sea. It is fairly bleak, with nothing for teenagers like Lily and her best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker) to do. Even the adults are bored; Lily's mom Margaret (Leslie Mann) turns to smoking pot and promiscuity to pass the time.

Lily is so bored that she cuts herself. The opening scenes of the movie show the scars on her inner thigh and imply that she might be suicidal as she stays underwater in her bathtub for way too long before coming to the surface. Her friendship with Alison is one of the few things she has going for her, even though Alison is almost the complete opposite of her. Whereas Lily is morose and somewhat flighty, Alison is more down-to-earth and sensible. Their friendship gives credence to the old saying that opposites attract.

One day, a gang of punkish skateboarders stops by Salton Sea for a short visit. Jesse (Kyle Gallner) flirts with Lily, who is taken by the charming cad because he is so different from the boys in Salton Sea. As he leaves town, she promises to visit him in Los Angeles. After yet another fight with her mother, Lily convinces Alison to steal the car of Hogan (Neal McDonough), Alison's friend and boss at the local ranch that employs her. Alison likes Hogan and doesn't want to do it, but she gives in to Lily, who can be very stubborn and doggedly persistent.

The two girls take an extended joyride to Los Angeles to stay with Jesse, who isn't all that he presented himself to be while in Salton Sea. He is homeless, squatting with his fellow skateboarders in an abandoned house. He convinces the girls to help him and his friends get a little money together so they can party. It starts off with robbing a few teenagers that he lured to the house through the Internet, but it soon turns to much bigger crimes that could affect Lily and Alison's future.

The self-destructive Lily wants to keep shacking up with Jesse, while Alison protests profusely. At this stage, "Little Birds" becomes something of a morality tale, teaching viewers about how a few impulsive mistakes as teenagers can haunt you for the rest of your life. It fortunately avoids becoming preachy, however, which would have marred the rest of the story, which is beautifully laid out by Elgin James, who also directed the film, marking his debut as a features director.

The highlight of the film is Temple's performance as Lily. She is a depressed, chaotic mess and does little to endear herself to the audience. Despite this, you simply can't take your eyes off her, and you root for her to do the right thing and go home. Temple has had small roles in films like "The Dark Knight Rises," but here, with the spotlight on her, she shines as never before. Panabaker also turns in a fine performance as the put-upon Alison, who may end up the tragic collateral damage in Lily's quest to never be bored again.

Director James infuses the film with plenty of great shots of Salton Sea and Los Angeles, accompanied by plenty of punk and alternative music. At the beginning of the film, the beautiful yet bleak shots of Salton Sea seemed like a prison for the two young girls. By the time James is finished showing you Los Angeles, you may be thinking that Salton Sea isn't so bad after all. If only Lily and Alison realize the same thing before it's too late.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars