A frequently beautiful and even more often frustratingly nihilistic movie, Little Birds is an entry into the “innocence lost” sub-genre of coming-of-age films. Here, we take characters who are, to an extent, at least, “innocent,” and then subject them to things that rob them of that very feature. This is how they grow. I can’t think of a more effective example than Thirteen, which is a fantastic film. That both it and Little Birds feature a pair of teenage girls is probably not a coincidence.
Set in a town beside the Salton Sea — whose own history is interesting — Little Birds follows Lily (Juno Temple) and Alison (Kay Panabaker) as they wind up in Los Angeles, out of their comfort zone, and exposed to all sorts of “wonderful” things. Lily is the one who wants to go — the proverbial “bad girl” of the duo — after she meets a skateboarder who lives there but visited their hometown for a day with his friends because the plot demanded it. My apologies. It was because they have a pool that has no water, and they couldn’t find any of those in LA. Right.
So, the two steal a car, drive to Los Angeles, crash with these boys — who apparently have nothing better to do; we only find out the back story to one of them — and get into all sorts of misadventures. Alison hates all of it, because she’s the good girl, while Lily revels in it. We see their diametrically opposed personalities from the start but it only becomes clear how different they truly are once they reach LA.
There isn’t a moment of Little Birds that isn’t predictable. As a result, any shocking scenes fail to have any effect. Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean. A climactic moment is essentially rendered worthless because, assuming you’ve read a story or seen a film in your lifetime, you’ll be able to figure out what’s going to happen. Smaller moments are ruined, too, but they’re not going to be as important. Little Birds is functional but feels like it could have been written by anyone. It borrows from the big book of clichés too often to be called original.
It’s tough to watch a film like Little Birds. It is unpleasant and provides few, if any, moments of levity or hope. It might be too dark for some people. It might be too dark for everyone. You can’t appreciate the good without the bad, and the reverse is also true. A constant barrage of negativity defeats an audience and eventually makes them feel dead inside. Not sad, not depressed, but dead. Empty. Emotionless. That is not what you want your audience to be feeling.
I think it might be possible for audience members to appreciate the film’s cinematography even if they wind up emotionally dead from the rest of its content. There are a few absolutely gorgeous shots in Little Birds, and they almost go to waste because they’re in service of a predictable story filled with no hope. But they are here, and they’re beautiful. If you want to see one of two extremely positive things in this movie, that’s one to look out for.
The other thing is the acting, which is almost strong enough to make real people out of shallow, poorly written characters. Juno Temple is playing an incredibly troubled girl upon whom almost every scene hinges. If she were to falter or take a significant misstep, the film could have lost any and all credibility. She takes it down the dark path it wanders and she holds it steady along the way. In a more thankless role is Kay Panabaker, who gets maybe two pivotal scenes and for the rest of the film is relegated to the background.
For some members of the audience, the inclusion of more veteran actors like Kate Bosworth, Leslie Mann, or Neal McDonough might get you excited. Don’t let the names fool you, because all three of them are barely in the film. They appear at the beginning, showing how the two girls’ lives are being shaped by the adults in them, and appear one or two more times as worried adults, but that’s it. This is the girls’ movie and it appropriately chooses to focus on them. The adults get glorified cameos at best.
A beautiful and unenjoyable movie, Little Birds might frustrate more audience members with its constant feelings of hopelessness than it will involve them in its predictable story. It has several beautiful shots, and its lead give it their all — particularly Juno Temple, who carries the film at times — but when the plot is predictable and there is never any levity or hope offered, it’s hard to invest. A film like this one thrives on emotions and when it leaves you dead inside it’s nearly impossible to feel anything, much less what it hopes you will. This isn’t a bad film, and it’ll definitely connect with some people, but that number will be few.