David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) may have spotted the extinct Labrador Duck. Sure, David’s only a 15-year-old birder and still reeling from his mother’s death over a year ago, but he needs to place his faith in something, so why not this extinct bird (although he will deny later in the film that the bird is a metaphor for anything). It also doesn’t help that his father (James LeGros) is about to marry Juliana (Daniela Lavender), who was David’s mother’s nurse no less. Thus it is understandable that David wants to evade the wedding to track down the supposedly extinct duck.
To assist him on this quest are fellow classmate birders the wannabe player Timmy (Alex Wolff) and the reserved Peter (Michael Chen); budding student photographer Ellen (Katie Chang); and the imminent birding scholar, not to mention Danny’s own idol—other than his birder mother, of course—Lawrence Konrad (Sir Ben Kingsley). The gang is excited about the potential famedom of discovering an extinct bird (and Ellen is just excited for the photo credit she would receive); but they will have a few obstacles to overcome in order to get there. They steal Timmy’s cousin’s car, which may contain meth crystals; they dodge an ominous black truck with large guns in the back, worried that they are drug lords after those meth crystals; they face inevitable car engine trouble; and they must even race against a douchey pair of birders eager to steal the credit for finding that Labrador Duck. All the while, this ragtag team of amateur birders bonds over their pratfalls and sexual inexperience.
Director/co-writer Rob Meyer wanted to make a poignant film about “kids [finding] peace—maybe even some sort of understanding—in the woods.” In that he certainly succeeds. A Birder’s Guide to Everything is a comical and charming film about adolescents (and adolescence). The kids have a natural chemistry together, which makes their dialogue and interactions so realistic. It’s a heartwarming exploration of grief that blessedly isn’t overly depressing or heavy.
Meyer’s spotlight on nerds, too, fuels the charm of this film. As a self-proclaimed nerd, Meyer wanted to “celebrate nerdiness,” embracing his own high school experience. He and co-writer Luke Matheny developed very likable nerds. They’re likable because they are unapologetically passionate about their interests and their individuality (and we all know that confidence is the number one factor in making yourself appealing). These kids aren’t pretending to be something they’re not—they’ve clearly been watching Glee.
Yet for all its charm and wit, not even this lovable gang of nerds can infuse this film with real insight or substance. The tribulations they face are too predictable—as if Meyer were ticking off these obstacles from some sort of pre-ordained list that all road trip films must follow. (The only real surprise is the resolution for the supposed drug lords—while their actions are predictable, their motivation is the true surprise.) And although the film is humorous, the jokes feel aimed at the lowest common denominator in the audience. They are never subversive or smart enough to warrant the laughs they seem to elicit. (Although this seems to have helped the film’s reception, since Birder’s Guide is currently a frontrunner for the Heineken Audience Award.)
Birder’s Guide is delightful yet simple. It’s an entertaining enough film that you don’t feel like your time was wasted, but it isn’t extraordinary enough to truly stand out. It merely feels like a rehashed version of ten different films with a similar premise. The insight it brings to the world of birding is the most remarkable aspect of the film (and also the only truly original aspect). That and the performances by the kids in the film—the aforementioned natural chemistry. Smit-McPhee, Wolff, Chen, and Chang all deliver such engrossing performances that the film’s other lackluster qualities dissipate. Hopefully they’ll be able to use this film to boost their budding acting careers.