By Hugh Powell
At the center of A Birder’s Guide to Everything is a woman named Dorothy Portnoy. We see her only in flashback, in blurry glimpses interspersed with brilliant songbirds: a Cedar Waxwing; a Canada Warbler. She’s David Portnoy’s mother, and she died 18 months before the movie starts.
These days, David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) spends most of his time brooding and sketching birds in his upstairs room amid a forlorn stockpile of his mother’s things. He’s shattered by her loss and resentful of his dad’s impending remarriage.
Like many a teenager, David copes by immersing himself in a pursuit his father doesn’t understand. His is birding, a pastime he learned from his mother and now pursues with his two friends, Timmy Barsky (Alex Wolff) and Peter Nessbaum (Michael Chen). Timmy is fast-talking, cocksure, and harmless; Peter is a buttoned-down observer of wing markings and Robert’s Rules of Order.
The three boys become enthralled with the possibility that David may have seen a Labrador Duck, considered extinct since 1878. They run the possibility by Lawrence Konrad, the local birding kahuna (Ben Kingsley), add an eager young photographer (Ellen, played by Katie Chang), and it’s off to the races.
The title is a tip-off to the movie’s ambitions. A Birder’s Guide to Everything aims to be a coming-of-age story, a comedy, a road trip, an awkward teenage romance. The director (Rob Meyer) uses a light touch, loopy sense of humor, and real affection for his young leads to give the movie grace. Most of all, it’s a tender rumination on how beauty remains in the world even after everything seems to have been lost.
Filling in this world are details of birding that are mostly very well researched and well rendered. (The Cornell Lab provided authentic books and artwork for Konrad’s office; our Macaulay Library contributed bird sounds; and the director sought the advice of birders in the New York State Young Birders Club, two of whom are now at Cornell. The noted birder Kenn Kaufman also consulted and makes a cameo in the movie.)
As the three boys and the girl walk into the Connecticut woods, sleeping bags swinging beneath their packs, you’d have to be crazy not to wish you were with them. David pauses, head bowed and finger raised, and names a string of birds as he hears them: Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Wood Thrush. Note to nonbirders: it really does happen like that. The moment adds an extra ripple of beauty to a morning in the sun-dappled woods.
With such attention paid to details, it’s strange that the movie’s biggest weakness is a bird. One morning, David skids to a stop on his bike and photographs a rather ordinary-looking duck as it waddles and quacks across a suburban road. This sighting becomes the possible Labrador Duck. To carry the suspense over the rest of the movie, you’d expect the director to surround this moment with some tantalizing strangeness. But this duck looks so ordinary that you half expect someone to start feeding it bread.
When they see the photos, Peter is unconvinced but Timmy jumps on it as an opportunity to impress girls—pretty much his single overriding concern in life. As a motormouth, Timmy keeps the movie ticking. He’s vulgar, but there’s a sweet innocence visible just underneath. “Do you ever wish that earth was more like Middle Earth?” he asks one evening, at a campfire. “All the time,” is Peter’s reply.
As David, Kodi Smit-McPhee hunches over his long limbs and fidgets with pale fingers. Adulthood is emerging on his face, but his eyes are young and vulnerable. Grief and awkwardness drag at him in almost every scene, except when he’s coasting on a bike or calling out the names of songbirds. These are the gifts of youth, and also the gifts of birding: the possibility that the world contains things you haven’t even imagined yet, and that you can discover them just by believing, and looking.
The counterweight is Lawrence Konrad. Kingsley brings a magnificent gravitas to this character, melding eccentricity, passion, opportunism, and regret. You can feel the boys being drawn toward him. But Konrad is not a teen. “Please do not confuse me with a role model,” he says. His life is mostly behind him, and he knows what his life list has cost him.
Despite Kingsley’s strength, the real weight of the film is hidden away in Dorothy, David’s mother. I wished that we’d learned a little more about her, but we have to make do with scattered asides, like fragments from a field notebook. David is living in a world that used to contain his mother, and never will again; it’s a moving reflection of what extinction means.
Dorothy’s central influence could also be taken as a nod to the role of women in birding—something I wish that birding movies could do a better job of illustrating. In this movie, Ellen is along to take photos, dispense uncharacteristically adult wisdom, and possibly help David realize that all is not lost. But she is only just learning about birds. I’d love to see a movie with heroines patterned after the real world—in the way that the late Starr Saphir, for instance, anchored the real-life documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect.
At one point, Konrad recalls one of Dorothy’s signature successes—finding a colony of Piping Plovers. “There’s nothing like the feeling of discovery,” he says, wistfully. It sometimes seems that discovery drifted out of reach somewhere between Lewis and Clark and Captain Kirk. But for a birder, it’s as simple as putting a pair of binoculars around your neck, stepping outside, and beginning to watch.
(A Birder’s Guide to Everything is rated PG-13; it contains strong language and a very brief moment of nudity. It is available now via video on demand and iTunes; it opens in theaters on March 21, 2014.)
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