If the Sundance Film Festival offered a prize for best backstory it would go to Elgin James. A former gang member who renounced violence and turned to filmmaking, he developed his first feature through the Sundance Institute and now premiers it at the festival. Little Birds, which was part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition, tells of the trouble two 15-year-old girls get into far from their Salton Sea home; it may be even more compelling than James' own story. A terrific coming of age drama that perfectly captures adolescents teetering between childhood and the adult world, it has plenty to appeal to fans of both character-driven and teen dramas.
Lily (Juno Temple) and Alison (Kay Panabaker) are lifelong best friends in their small desert town, although if either girl ever examined it they would realize fissures are developing in their relationship. Lily is unhappy, her thighs a patchwork of scars and cuts that attest to her self-destructive tendencies. Allison is happier and still very much a child, a little girl happy to indulge her interest in horses with a part-time job helping a neighbor care for his. When three L.A. skate punks roll into town, Lily falls for one of them, Jesse (Kyle Gallner), and sees him as a means to escape a dead-end existence. Ally doubts that, but she is used to going along with what Lily wants, and what Lily wants now is to run away to what she thinks will be a new life.
James is a gifted screenwriter with a fine sense of place and an ear for dialogue. More than that, he remembers what it was to be a teenager. He captures the casual cruelty of boys toward girls who don't fit stereotypes or won't play along. He depicts the competition between even the closest girlfriends and the meanness that suddenly alters the tightest friendship. Temple is electric as the troubled Lily, but Panabaker's Alison is more intriguing, seemingly more immature and yet in many ways far more aware and responsible than her BFF. Jesse is complex; he seems like a nice enough guy but his willingness to go along with the harebrained schemes his crowd cooks up suggests a certain weakness, or possibly something more corrosive.
If James has a weakness as a filmmaker it is that he evidently does not trust his own abilities. Little Birds is one of those movies burdened with too many songs; the soundtrack is intrusive and wholly unnecessary. Rather than enhancing the film, the music detracts from it. This is a pity, because otherwise it's a striking debut that points to a bright future for its writer/director.
Distributor: Millennium Entertainment
Cast: Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker, Kate Bosworth, Leslie Mann, Neal McDonough and Kyle Gallner
Director/Screenwriter: Elgin James
Producers: Jamie Patricof, Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky
Rating: R for pervasive language, some violence including a sexual assault, sexuality/nudity, drug and alcohol use - all involving teens.
Running time: 94 min
Release date: August 17 ltd.