A birder’s guide to everything – film review

17 May 2014 by GrrlScientist, posted in Birding

SUMMARY: A 15-year-old birding enthusiast thinks he's made the discovery of a lifetime -- spotting an extinct bird. The weekend of his widowed father's wedding, three friends join him on an epic road trip to pursue and photograph this bird, thereby earning their place in birding history. But they discover much more than a rare bird.

What would you do if you spotted a bird that was thought extinct for roughly 150 years? You'd snap a photograph of it, of course. That's what birding enthusiast David Portnoy does, only to later see that his photograph was too blurry to be definitive. So in the whimsical adventure, A Birder's Guide to Everything [iTunes VOD; Amazon US DVD/Amazon US video on demand], David and a few school friends set out on a road trip to get a better photograph of this migrating bird, thereby earning their place in birding history. But in their pursuit of this rare bird, they end up finding a deeper understanding of the adults in their lives, of each other, and of themselves.

David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a shy 15-year-old high school sophomore whose mother shared her passion for birds with him. Eighteen months after her untimely death, birds still provide David with a vital link to her memory as he struggles to deal with his monumental loss.

We join David just when he's thinks he's spotted something truly unprecedented -- a supposedly extinct duck species running down the middle of a suburban New York City street. Of course, such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence as proof -- and one blurry photograph just won't do it.

So David and the other members of the Young Birder's Society, Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen), decide to get a stronger camera lens, chase down the migrating duck, which they predict is headed towards a lake in the woods of Connecticut, and snap some clearer pictures. They are joined in their quest by David's classmate, Ellen (Katie Chang), who has "five years of photography experience" -- and a powerful telephoto lens from which she refuses to be separated.

The day before David's widowed father (James LeGros) marries for the second time, the foursome hurriedly depart on a wacky road trip in a ramshackle car that sings like a black-and-white warbler -- never mind that David is supposed to be Best Man.


L to R: Ellen (Katie Chang), Timmy (Alex Wolff), David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Peter (Michael Chen) star in the coming-of-age adventure about four teen-aged bird watchers, A Birder's Guide to Everything (2014).
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Along the way, they run across the cantankerous writer and birding legend, Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley), who was hired as a guide by two men who are also eagerly seeking this illusory bird -- apparently with an eye towards stealing the credit for photographing it first.

The film explains bird watching -- birding -- often in a self-deprecating way to an audience that probably doesn't know much about it. For example, in one amusing scene, David tells Ellen, with wit and a minimum of dialogue, about the different sorts of birders; the feeder-fillers and the data-driven listers before she prompts him into mentioning the more spiritual watchers.

"Now, the watchers -- this is Lawrence Konrad's definition -- they want to achieve a transcendent connection between nature that erases any distinction between, I guess, human and bird souls", David says.

But this connection is as ephemeral as the bird they all are pursuing -- even for David's much-admired role model, Lawrence, who at one point in the film, professes: "Birds are my muses, and I strive to be a true watcher."

The dialogue is witty and wonderfully believable. The campfire scene where the four friends discuss their lack of sexual experience is especially realistic and amusing.

The bird is this flick's Holy Grail: although this poignant film uses birding as the main impetus to bring all these people together, this really is not a story about watching birds at all -- any obsession could have served the same purpose. For this reason, you don't have to be a birder to enjoy it. The movie shows that seeking the rare and elusive is often more than just a physical quest; it also is a spiritual journey that changes the seeker.

"I'm sixty-three years old and very much alone. I guide assholes for money. I have one leg and no driver's license", asserts the prickly and flawed Lawrence to an adoring David at one point. "Please do not confuse me with a role model."

The film also -- gently -- suggests that the loss of a species, like the loss of a beloved parent, is a terrible tragedy with far-reaching, permanent consequences.

Writer and expert birder, Kenn Kaufman, acted as consultant on this film, and also had a brief cameo appearance during the wedding scene (you'll see him give a suit jacket to David). Kaufman ensured that the birding jargon was appropriate and that the birds were correctly matched to their songs and habitats. Unfortunately, despite his expert guidance, some errors still managed to slip through.

For example, I was truly surprised that the Labrador duck was mistakenly identified as the first bird species known to have become extinct in North America when in fact it was second. The first North American bird extinction is a dubious honour belonging to another famous seabird, the great auk.

I am probably part of a loud chorus of birders complaining about the film's "Labrador duck" look-alike -- a female mallard. Mallards are dabbling ducks that feed off the surface of the water, whereas the extinct Labrador duck was a diving species that dined on small mollusks sifted from the muddy bottom of shallow bodies of water. Of course, I could nit-pick every little detail about this particular choice of bird actor, but I'll instead show you photographs of the two species side-by-side because you don't need to be a devoted birder to see their many differences:


Nope! Not alike! Left: Adult female mallard, Anas platyrhynchos (Image: Kyores). Right: Adult female Labrador duck, Camptorhynchus labradorius (AMNH. Image: Stavenn).
Both images Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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However, don't let my niggling criticisms about the duck discourage you from watching this sweet funny film, because you and your entire family will enjoy it. Here's the trailer:

A Birder's Guide to Everything is an independent film starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alex Wolff, Michael Chen, Katie Chang, James Le Gros, Daniela Lavender and Sir Ben Kingsley. It was written by Rob Meyer and Luke Matheny and directed by Rob Meyer. It premiered in 2013 at the Tribeca Film Festival where it won second place for the Audience Award. It is being distributed by Focus World and Screen Media in March 2014. The film was released onto Video on Demand and Select Theaters on 21 March 2014.

Rating: PG-13 (strong language, sex and drug references, and very brief partial nudity.)
Runtime: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
Initial release (USA): 21 March 2014 (limited)
On DVD (USA & Canada): 27 May 2014
On DVD & VOD (UK): 19 May 2014

Visit the official website for screening locations and other information.

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, which was published on The Guardian.

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When she's not out birding, Grrlscientist can also be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Expatacular!, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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