A Birder’s Guide To Everything aims to land right in the middle of the bird-movie spectrum, on that tonal spot where the gentle wonder of 2001’s Winged Migration meets the mainstream comedy of 2011’s The Big Year. It almost, almost manages that effectively. A coming-of-age dramedy about a 15-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) unmoored by his mother’s recent death, A Birder’s Guide treads in some traditional teen-movie territory. There’s the usual semi-salty talk about girls and sex, as well as a birding/camping trip to Connecticut’s Cockaponsett State Forest that feels deliberately reminiscent of Stand By Me. But it also subtly conveys the stillness and sense of purpose that comes from scanning the skies for the soaring creatures that connect birders to the natural world, and in the case of Smit-McPhee’s character, David, the ornithologically obsessed mom he lost.
As directed by feature first-timer Rob Meyer—from a script co-written by Meyer and Luke Matheny, Academy Award-winning director of the 2010 short film “God Of Love”—the film captures its lush, leafy settings with an understated evocativeness that fully immerses the audience in its sense of place. The problem is that the movie ultimately leans too heavily on that sense of understatement, failing to let genuine, unexpected emotion fully break through to the surface. What could have been a moving portrait of adolescent grief instead comes across as a pleasant-enough story about a sad kid’s quest to find a rare bird, and to revive something even more elusive: a healthy relationship with his father.
Meyer and Matheny wisely withhold some crucial details about the death of David’s mother until nearly the movie’s third act. All the audience initially knows is that David’s dad (played by James Le Gros, with an appropriate mix of compassion and frustration) is getting remarried in a couple of days to a woman named Juliana (Daniela Lavender), and that a resentful David has decided to focus his energy on tracking down the extinct Labrador duck, a bird he thinks he miraculously spotted while riding his bike. After a consult with a local birding expert (Ben Kingsley), David decides to spend the day and night before his father’s wedding heading from Westchester County, New York, to the Connecticut state park where the duck has most likely migrated. He’s joined on his journey by his best friends and fellow Young Birders Society members, Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen), as well as Ellen (The Bling Ring’s Katie Chang), a budding high-school photographer who happens to have just the telephoto lens they need to capture a verifiable image of the coveted quacker. It’s obvious from the first mile clocked on the group’s borrowed Volkswagen Cabriolet that David is in denial, and using this trip to show that his loyalties still lie firmly with his late mother.
Smit-McPhee, the young actor who brought such wrenching vulnerability to his roles in The Road and Let Me In, makes a convincingly smart, gangly, introspective teenager. But like much of the movie, he’s a little too dialed-down to fully register. His scenes with his buddies—wisecracking Timmy and straitlaced, asthmatic Peter—are sweet throwbacks to the adolescent male dynamics depicted in previous movies and TV shows, from The Goonies to Stand By Me to Freaks And Geeks. But their jokey camaraderie never feels entirely natural, and the inevitable attraction between David and Ellen hits too many easily pre-anticipated beats.
A Birder’s Guide To Everything does deserve enormous credit for showing modern-day teenagers who are interested in experiences beyond texting, tweeting, or otherwise staring slack-jawed at multiple digital screens. These are multi-faceted, curious kids playing starring roles in a story that treats them with respect and empathy. While the movie doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, there’s something of value in what Meyer attempts. And that kind of value counts for something, much like the benefits derived from breathing in the fresh air while hoping to see a bird that, regardless of patient watchfulness, may never fly into full view.