It’s not surprising that Little Birds, the feature film debut of writer-director Elgin James, was one of the most buzzed-about films at the Sundance Film Festival. The story of teenage girls drifting through life set against the awesome, shriveled up landscape of Salton Sea, California, the picture packs in the Amer-indie cliches.
There are aimless youths, helpless parents, dreamy evocations of the unattainable world outside a car window and an engulfing sense of the worn down detritus of small town American life, past its peak.
Yet the whole enterprise is an exercise in wheel-spinning, a plodding picture rife with familiar characters and situations, rendered with a nasty edge. It’s a brutish experience that puts star Juno Temple through an emotional and physical ringer, without the sort of larger, unifying purpose that justifies such turmoil.
The actress, also seen at Sundance in Greg Araki’s Kaboom, plays rage-filled Lily Hobart, filled with angst and aggression born from the usual afflictions: not fitting in, an absent father etc. Her only friend: nice girl Alison (Kay Panabaker). When some alluring vagrant boys from Los Angeles turn up, promising freedom and excitement, Lily decides to follow them home and convinces the reluctant Alison to join her.
The film offers an evocative portrait of life in Salton Sea, a post-apocalyptic world of decaying dusty streets, tired trailer parks and empty pools surrounded by strewn about, rusting household items. Cinematographer Reed Morano’s stark camerawork enhances the protagonists’ suffocation by isolating them against this larger, decaying backdrop. When the girls make it to L.A., one form of wreckage is replaced with another, as they join the boys in the burned out shell of an old building, the grime from which seeps off the screen.
Still, the bulk of the story wallows in sub-Gus Van Sant tendencies. Its protagonist is a lost teen filled with unchecked, unhinged aggression, because that’s what lost teens are supposed to have. Temple offers one note throughout: wild-eyed rage, without projecting the vulnerability needed to open Lily up and make sense of her angry, misguided behavior.
The dreamlike portrait of youthful malaise is supplemented by an ugly streak that sends the leads on a miserable journey through the depths of abusive, street-kid hell. They and their compatriots act out, maraud around L.A. and wind up in over their heads, in a mess they can’t weasel away from. It’s not entertainment, the whimsical mood is tempered by overarching brutality and the stark violence awkwardly undermines the sought-after coming-of-age whimsy.
Grim, one-note, endlessly depressing, Little Birds is a prime example of miserabilist indie cinema and, despite it’s strong craft, consistently a tough sit.