Little Birds

Once you know, there ain’t no comin’ back

I would love to see a movie starring Juno Temple’s character from Little Birds, Sarah Bolger’s character from The Moth Diaries, and Ryan Gosling’s character from Drive.  It’d be a fantastic road movie in which they would, in the words of Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winnfield, “walk from place to place, meet people, [and] get into adventures.”  But there would be a roadster and a bike involved.  Don’t ask me who would be the voice of wisdom and save them all from certain destruction.

Little Birds was written and directed by Elgin James, which in retrospect makes some of the supposedly “based upon true life experiences” bits seem simultaneously synthetic and hubristic, but I want to forget about the behind-the-scenes stuff for a minute, because Juno Temple’s and Kay Panabaker’s performances here are really worth the sit.

The story centers around Lily (Juno Temple, the reason I turned the movie on), a depressed fifteen year-old who has gone halfway to killing herself at least twice, once by cutting her thigh.  She lives in a poverty-choked town near the Salton Sea – a highly saline lake in California accidentally created by a flood, leaving wreckage, dead fish, mud volcanoes, and a generally run-down vibe.  Lily, tired of this place and feeling neglected by her mother (Leslie Mann), dreams of running away and going anywhere else.  Her best friend, Alison (Kay Panabaker) hangs at her side, also living a sedentary life near the lake and keeping few (or no) other friends.  Alison lives with her seemingly catatonic dad and helps out on a farm owned by her uncle Hogan (Neal McDonough).  The early scenes of Alison and Lily sharing a one-person bicycle may as well be iconic shots from an exemplary youth-rebellion film, which is saying something, because I believe, to an extent, that these characters (or at least their archetypes) are important.

Lily eventually leaves town with the help of Alison, who steals Hogan’s truck, though Alison goes along with this only because she’s afraid Lily will get herself hurt.  They make their way to Los Angeles and follow a trio of boys they met earlier: Jesse (Kyle Gallner), David (Chris Coy), and Louis (Carlos Pena, Jr.).  Jesse, thinking he’d never see Lily again, made out with her and promised this-and-that if they ever ran into each other in L.A.  The boys reveal themselves to be a group of wastrels, living in an abandoned motel and occasionally robbing people on the street.  The active viewer asks, where are their parents (with the exception of Jesse, who explains his preposterous, albeit convenient to the plot, predicament)?  I don’t know.  How are they all so lean and muscular without workout equipment or money for good food?  Beats me.  How did David, the group’s de facto leader, get hold of a handgun?  Couldn’t tell you.  The scenario is handy because it gives Lily an excuse to hang out with people her age and still be unaccounted for.

One of the film’s themes is inertia.  Early on, McDonough’s Hogan, essentially the film’s wise old soothsayer (which I’m willing to buy, considering the fact that farmers literally predict the future with a good degree of accuracy every year in the Farmer’s Almanac) tells Alison a story about traveling all the way to Bora Bora in his youth for much the same reason Lily wants to escape the Salton Sea.  The one pearl of wisdom he took from his adventures was the fact that “people are dumb and cruel everywhere.  I could have just stayed home.”  Alison also starts to believe that excitement about life may be interior, and that staying in one spot is okay if that’s what makes you happy.  The problem here is that Alison (Panabaker is 22, but I’m guessing Alison is somewhere around 14) doesn’t seem to have any aspirations.  Lily doesn’t know where she wants to go, but at least adventure is in her blood.  Is Alison really fine with riding her bike around a depressed neighborhood for all hours of daylight?  Regardless, the situation with the male trio signifies another form of inertia.  These guys, whom to Lily represent independence, freedom, and adventure, are actually doing nothing.  Less than nothing, in fact.  No family, no job, and not even the urge to drift.  Lily, in the absence of her cramped home life for a few days, convinces herself that she’s “really happy.”  Alison, the more down-to-earth of the two, can see that nothing has changed, and more importantly, that there’s nothing for Lily out here.

The boys come up with a harebrained scheme: use a dating site (which is all but named Craigslist) to lure perverts into a trap and rob them, using Lily as bait.  Angry at Alison and blindly in love with Jesse (which seems ridiculous given their short time onscreen together, but makes sense considering Lily’s sheltered life and lack of romantic experience), Lily agrees to the idea.  It works once, then David gets greedy and books another meeting (in the middle of the night) without Lily’s permission.  When Alison stands up for her best friend, she is kicked out of the group, all of whom have been annoyed with her from the start for being a know-it-all, disagreeing with their violent points of view, and for not wanting to “party.”  Of course, the guy Lily meets next knows he’s walking into a trap, and when he sees that his captors are kids, he beats the hell out of all three boys.  Jesse shows his true colors and abandons Lily.

Next comes something problematic.  There’s an attempted rape, but it’s the Movie type of rape – the kind that occurs (or in this case, almost occurs) with the intention of standing for something else.  The rape scene in both versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was horrifying not only because of the event itself and its sense of realism (both of which are horrifying enough), but because it was not used as a symbol or a consequence of the victim’s actions.  Here, we can sense a “loss of innocence” coming, in a very serious and permanent way.  Lily has been rushing her adulthood through the entire film.  Well, the film seems to say, here’s what rushing your coming-of-age gets you.  Really, dude?  Enough with the Big Bad Wolf schtick, and enough babying women.

But Lily gets one more chance.  As Chekhov says it must, the gun finally goes off.  The rapist rolls over, either maimed or dead, and Alison stands there with the smoking pistol.  Her ability to do this is accounted for earlier – she shoots with Hogan on the farm almost every day.  A character detail that not only deepens its character, but actually functions for the story in a satisfying way!  Who would have thought?  Free of the boys and (hopefully) seeing how idiotic all of this was, Lily joins Alison on a trip home, but we don’t see them get there.  We last see them pulling over on a beautiful beach and prancing into the shallows of the Pacific Ocean, reverting to childlike excitement and literally washing themselves of whatever residue remains from the adventure.

Finally, Juno Temple gets an excellent lead role and does what I’ve always known she could do.  Kay Panabaker, previously unknown to me, is also astounding here; both display incredible vulnerability and strength.  The duo make the film worth watching despite the turns in logic and the filmmaker’s attempt to do everything at once – the story touches on suicide, abandonment, and sexuality, but little concerning any of that is revealed or realized.  Also, why is Juno Temple, 23, topless so often in this?  I can guess.

I imagine that the title, Little Birds, refers to the delicacy/vulnerability of young girls and the dangers of temptation.  But as Alison could surely tell you, there are some little birds that don’t buy into the stereotype.  Velociraptor, for instance.

Little Birds (2012); written and directed by Elgin James; starring Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker.

Advertisements

TrackBack Identifier URI