Teenage wild child Lily (Juno Temple) and her best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker) live in the desolate California desert salt ocean, the Salton Sea. The girls are caught in that modern adolescent transition that seems to jump from far too young to much too old, and there’s not much to do except watch and learn from the depressing lives of their elders, especially Lily’s mom (Leslie Mann) and aunt (Kate Bosworth). When the girls run across some strange boys in an abandoned swimming pool, Lily and one of the boys, Jesse (Kyle Gallner), hit it off, and he invites her to visit him in Los Angeles. The single-minded focus of Lily from that point on is getting to Los Angeles and Jesse, an exciting world away from the relentless poverty ridden climate of the Salton Sea. She begs and bullies Alison into “borrowing” a car from a family friend (Neal McDonough), though the two are in their early teens and lack drivers licenses. What follows is a wild adventure that turns dark quickly, leading the girls ever further from the safe life they know.
Little Birds surprised me, fooled me into thinking I knew better, thinking that I understood what it was doing. What stands out the most is the mood of the film, which mirrors the uncertainty and turbulence of the teenage experience remarkably. Director and writer Elgin James pulls some remarkable sleight of hand over the course of this film, boring you senseless right along with the girls, with the mundane geography of the Salton Sea before upping the stakes dramatically in the second half of the film.
Figuring out one’s place in the world is never simple, and so often young girls look to the worst possible ideal in order to understand how they should act: the teenage boy. A word about the malicious, idiotic boys that populate this film — Elgin James has seen the evil that lingers in men’s hearts and he is here to relate it. So often the cruelties inflicted by teenagers are thoughtless, petty and simple, but the sickening nature of how callous and self-centered boys can be at this age in this film was a stomach-turning time-machine as strong as smelling the unmistakable scent of an old love, and as simple as noticing the scar left by a childhood trauma.
Wanting to be around boys and willing to do whatever it takes to be liked, Lily is all over the place, threatening and abusive to Alison one moment and unsure of herself the next, waiting to see how she should react, figuring it out moment by moment. Alison isn’t given to these whims, and is cursed with a staunch devotion to her friend, as well as the kind of forward thinking and cautious independence that makes you remarkably unpopular with teens your own age. The girl’s divergent futures feel mapped in these moments, as if Alison understands the breadth of the world waiting for them, and Lily is willing to trade all the future for the immediacy of now. As I watched this I just kept thinking “Always an Alison never a Lily,” and your experience of the film will be deeply colored by whichever little bird you identify with more strongly.
The girls are fantastic in their roles. Juno Temple is quickly poised for greatness, taking on some stark and damaged strong character roles, and Kay Panabaker’s sweet face holding so much solemnity and prudence, the perfect foil to the impossibility of Lily. The sundries of the film, beyond the remarkable performances from the entire cast, are evocative, the music used well though heavy-handedly, the cinematography and staging is simultaneously intimate while removed. Desert landscapes and city views are rendered with equal interest. To say too much more would be to give away the strengths of the film.
Little Birds stayed with me, dark and depressing though it is, and the film is fairly disturbing, make no mistake. A strong character drama that consistently ups the stakes, it recalls the darker side of coming-of-age, perfectly recalling the pain of begin a teenager. But as much as I liked the movie, I kept wondering “Why would you want to remember that feeling?”
(One trigger warning that could constitute a spoiler, there is an aggressive near-rape in the film that may upset some viewers.)