I don’t know any birders in real life, but on the whole, they sure do seem like nice folks. After the delightful, yet little seen, The Big Year and the even more delightful teen comedy A Birder’s Guide to Everything, I may consider taking up the sport this summer. Co-written by Oscar winner Luke Matheny and director Rob Meyer, the story is simple; a high school expedition club, the Young Birder’s Society, including our hero David (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen) go on a wild goose (er, bird) chase, seeking out an extinct Labrador duck that David finds in his neighborhood. “Borrowing” a car (where they find what might either be rock candy or crystal meth) they head northwards to New England on a spring day, encountering the kinds of funny obstacles you might expect to find in this kind of adventure comedy.
David’s mother, a famous birder, has passed away leading to a strained relationship with his father (James Le Gros), who is about to remarry. The film is smartly in the vein of another insightful movie directed at this target audience, the too little seen Bandslam, another work with living and breathing smart teenagers with serious problems. This film reflects a new reality in parenting; hard-working adults that love their children without being able to properly show it, or even understand their interests.
Here, our lead finds a mentor in the form of local birding expert Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley). He encourages the boys to set off and for all of about two minutes seems like a sinister force. In a nice little twist, we learn he’s not just a jaded tour guide making a living taking rich guys on Big Years around the forest on ATVs, but he’d rather be on the hunt with a bunch of nice kids genuinely interested in the sport.
A Birder’s Guide to Everything is fun cinematic comfort food, deserving of a mainstream audience. I have a feeling its target demographic will eventually find it and love it. Each character has a few quirks, especially Chen as the club president who vetoes everything just to be the voice of dissent, although he comes through when required. The film balances its tone, mixing light comedy with darker material, especially as David bonds with Ellen (Katie Chang), the only female in the expedition. She’s tired of being the “new girl” raised in a military family that continually moves around the world. David and Ellen share several touching moments in the third act, as the story resolves some of the tension between father and son, friends, and the general anxiety felt by teenagers of a certain age. Here’s a film that knows that and has a good deal of warm fun along the way.