'Little Birds': New Filmmaker Takes Flight
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Elgin James, the writer and director of "Little Birds," has a personal story that's catnip for festival trawlers and arts-pages editors: How many other moviemakers can claim to have broken Sundance and received a prison sentence within the same six-month period?
But that's what happened to the fellow, and I suppose part of the reason that this picture's getting its release in 2012 rather than in 2011, when it played at the legendary indie film festival, is that James was in stir and, hence, unavailable to promote it. James obtained his release in March of this year. (Full disclosure: I moderated a panel on the film along with James and a few other participants in the making of the film at Long Beach Island's Lighthouse Film Festival this past June.)
James had been involved in a collective characterized by federal law enforcement as a "gang," which participated in violent activities against white-supremacist skinhead groups, in his youth, which he is the first to characterize as somewhat misspent, and the charge on which he got the sentence stemmed from that period in his life. Now a self-described pacifist, James credits his transition into creativity with turning his head and his life around.
So he's got the backstory, but does he have the goods? "Little Birds" is strong evidence of a real talent, not least because it doesn't tell the story of a bunch of guys like Elgin and his crew, whose misadventures occurred on the Eastern Seaboard. Rather than going the overt autobiographical route, James' "Little Birds" is the story of a couple of poor misfit teen girls in the desolate environs of Salton Sea.
James' directorial touch is sufficiently vivid, and his dialogue is so convincing that at first the viewer might not notice the commonplace dynamic between Lily (Juno Temple) and Alison (Kay Panabaker). Lily is a take-no-prisoners hellion, craving sensation and an escape from her dead-end environs (which, captured by cinematographer Reed Morano, look very dead-end indeed while also carrying an unusual sere, wide-open-spaces majesty). Meanwhile, Kate is a more stable, responsible figure who nonetheless allows the more aggressive Lily to take advantage of her, as when Lily badgers Alison into borrowing the pickup truck of a sympathetic adult and driving to Los Angeles in pursuit of a group of boys with whom they recently hung out. These fellows have one not entirely bad apple in their number. Still, it's not long before they press Lily and Alison into a dangerous scheme that involves Lily using her attractiveness as a lure for sleazeball males that the younger fellows will subsequently roll for cash and credit cards.
If you think this isn't going to end well, you're right, and the ending is actually the point where the movie turns most conventional; its ostensible twist is hardly the surprise that James intends it as. Up until that point, though, the movie is both engrossing and sensitively detailed. James' ability to reveal the more vulnerable sides of Lily in ways that illuminate her anti-social behavior without trying to excuse it is a rare gift. And Temple's performance in that role is acute and almost wholly matched by the efforts of the supporting cast, which also includes Kate Bosworth and Leslie Mann as adult women in Lily and Alison's lives whose resignation to their own fates provides something of a cause for Lily and Alison to rebel, however futilely, against.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He
lives in Brooklyn.