The feature directorial debut from Elgin James tells a familiar story of bored and neglected young girls on the prowl for adventure, trouble and love. Little Birds is a cross between the 2005 sleeper hit Havoc and this year’s Hick, as the story centers on two young girls, one of whom falls, naturally, for the wrong guy. However, James’s feature stands apart from these earlier films as the director’s personal understanding of homelessness and his musical background bring Little Birds to life in a unique and unapologetically dark way.
Rising star Juno Temple plays protagonist Lily Hobart, a young girl growing up in a deadbeat town by the Salton Sea in California. She struggles with a home complicated by the suicide of her father and the subsequent steady stream of male company entertained by her mother (played by Leslie Mann). Although some of their scenes lack a perfect rhythm, Mann and Temple ultimately make a good pair, as their relationship reflects Lily’s erratic behavior—loving and supportive in one moment, vicious and destructive the next.
Temple plays her part with an exquisite but subtle intensity. She often accomplishes the difficult task of channeling a frighteningly empty look with the blink of an eye; these moments in the film tell more about Lily’s character than the scars on her body from her struggles with self-harming. Oftentimes, she is only grounded by her friendship with Alison (played by Kay Panabaker). The film follows the two girls as they run away from home (at Lily’s request) to Los Angeles. There, they begin living in an abandoned building with a boy Lily met just once before (played by Kyle Gallner) and his two streetwise friends (Chris Coy and Carlos Pena) who each in his own way epitomizes the word “douchebag.” During their time in L.A., Lily pulls further away from Alison, enjoying the darker side of their new lives and the petty, occasionally violent crimes they commit. And although Little Birds is no Thelma & Louise, the story of the imperfect friendship between Lily and Alison evokes a similar sense of unconditional love complicated by certain inevitable doom.
In many ways, Little Birds is a dystopian portrait of America; another story of a country’s forgotten small towns. Kate Bosworth takes on a minor but unforgettable role as Lily’s aunt, whose husband is a paraplegic veteran. James tells her story with strong imagery, aligning her husband’s physical state with that of their infant son. In moments like this, and with a fantastic score that rises and falls with the plot, Little Birds is a compelling work of art.
As a whole, the story does not quite wrench at one’s heart as it might have, and James’ limited and narrow approach to Lily’s story prevents Little Birds from becoming a more powerful coming-of-age tale. However, it is admirable that—although Little Birds ends on what might be considered a lighter note—James refuses to water the story down. Rather than leave her past behind, his protagonist actually returns to the locus of her pain. Lily’s story is the anti-fairy tale, with her dirty blonde hair and even dirtier mouth. For all intents and purposes, she is white trash. Even so, there’s still no place like home.
Director: Elgin James
Writer: Elgin James
Starring: Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker, Leslie Mann, Kate Bosworth
Release Date: Aug. 29, 2012