Little Birds is a tragic tale in which the poor stay poor, government stays out of the business of welfare, and a legitimate rape at the film's climax does not lead to pregnancy. What a perfect film to accompany this week's GOP convention! Too bad it's a morbid bore that never soars high above its bleak landscape.
Set in California's forgotten Salton Sea, writer-director Elgin James' debut follows 15 year-old Lily (Juno Temple) and her best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker) as they attempt to flee their impoverished community and build a nest in Los Angeles with a group of runaway squatters. While her mother (Leslie Mann) worries back home, Lily quickly falls in love with Jesse (Kyle Gallner), the more sensitive boy in this gang. Instead of having sex, the two damaged souls share their scars in a scene that would be touching were it not filled with so many clichés. Meanwhile, Jesse's buds are downright awful to Alison, referring to her as the ugly "itty bitty titty committee." She's the film's moral compass, and she consistently warns Lily of impending doom, which predictably surfaces in the film's final act.
The boys come up with an ill-conceived business plan: Lily will lure unsuspecting "perverts" on Craig's List to the gang's decrepit motel room and then rob them. The outcome of this arrangement is difficult to watch and puts an end to the girls' fluttering in the City of Angels. And so, these underage Thelma and Louise return back to their wasteland, degraded, paralyzed, and stuck at home. Like Winter's Bone, Precious and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Birds is a gritty narrative of lost innocence filled with grotesque imagery, unforgiveable villains, and cruel surroundings; unlike its predecessors, however, this Sundance indie neither engages our imaginations nor pulls on our heartstrings.
Poor Juno Temple -- full of tough teenage angst and despair -- has been violated far too often onscreen during her prolific career. In Atonement, her rape serves as the catalyst for a decades-long romantic tragedy. This year, after Killer Joe transformed her into a sex slave to settle her family's debt, her character in Birds is asked to endure more unforgiveable acts of sexual violence -- this time without Joe Wright's lush imagery or Tracy Letts' pitch dark humor.
The Salton Sea is one of the most potent geographical metaphors a director could ask for, and yet, James doesn't fully capture the fascinating, strange and devastating nature of this ecological disaster. For a more satisfying glimpse of this horrifying deserted resort-town, look no further than Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's smart documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, narrated by John Waters.
James has drawn on his childhood as a homeless member of a Los Angeles street gang. After making the film, he was sentenced to a maximum security prison for extortion, despite pleas by Robert Redford for leniency. Now he's a free man and ready to share his artistic vision with the world; he credits his vow of non-violence to a personal conversation with Redford on a mountaintop at Sundance. Perhaps the peaks and valleys of James' recent experiences at Sundance and behind bars will inspire more promising future projects. This time around, James has assembled a flock of fine actors who deserve better material.
Little Birds opens in theaters on August 31.