Rob Meyer’s feature directorial debut, A Birder’s Guide to Everything, could be considered, in birders jargon, a crippler, a word used to denote a rare and spectacular bird. Co-written with Academy Award winner Luke Matheny (for best live action short “God of Love”), this is a coming-of-age story told with humor and a great deal of heart. Beautiful cinematography (by Tom Richmond) and a winning original soundtrack (Jeremy Turner) make this movie one for what birders call the “life list.”
Following in his mother’s footsteps after her death, 15-year old David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has become obsessed with birding. It has become a form of escape, not only from his grief but from participation in his father’s impending marriage to the woman who served as his mother’s nurse during her illness. One morning, he comes upon a duck that doesn’t quite fit the bill (pun intended) of anything currently listed in the bird books. He snaps a quick, blurry photo showing just enough detail to connect it to a species that hasn’t been seen since 1878.
David, along with the two other remaining members of their school’s dwindling Young Birder’s Club, take the photo to well-known ornithologist Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley), who confirms David’s suspicions that it might well be the Labrador duck, believed to be the first species of bird to become extinct in North America. Konrad suggests the bird was most likely passing through suburban New York on its migratory journey and might be next spotted on the lake in Connecticut’s Cockaponset State Forest.
Thus, on the day before his father’s wedding, David, along with Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen), embark on a hastily prepared road trip, accompanied by the self-invited Ellen (Katie Chang), who has the requisite camera lens for clear proof of their sighting. What ensues is a series of calamities, often hilarious, in the form of a stolen car, a baggie with an unknown substance, an engine breakdown, a lost inhaler, competing birders, duck hunters, and love interests lost and found.
Scenes of David’s childhood memories of his mother are skillfully woven in and out of the storyline in beautiful, gauzy images of verdant foliage, filtered sunlight, and birdsong. The depth of David’s feelings of loss and betrayal are poignantly revealed when David finds a dead hummingbird in his driveway and places it lovingly in the box meant to hold the rings for his father’s upcoming wedding.
Smit-McPhee and Wolff give outstanding performances, with Wolff providing the sex-obsessed teen comic relief in contrast to Smit-McPhee’s quiet portrayal of contained grief. James Le Gros’ performance as David’s father seems comparatively stilted, but, to be fair, his character appears in only a few short scenes. Kingsley is excellent as the pompous expert on birding, and both Chen and Chang are wholly believable as, respectively, the brain and the pushy new kid.
Meyer’s shows an astute understanding for birding that should satisfy those enthusiasts attracted by the movie’s title, but there is something here for anyone who has ever had to find the guts to go forward despite everything seeming completely out of their control; or, in other words, for anyone who has had to survive, or is in process of surviving, life as a teenager.