Teen birdwatchers take to screen in sweet, funny ‘Birder’s Guide to Everything’

3/11/2014 | 1

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A Birder’s Guide to Everything follows four young birders, played by Michael Chen (left), Katie Chang, Alex Wolff, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, on a search for a lost duck.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything, the new film about teenage birders, is available for rent or purchase on iTunes and the Sony Entertainment Network today. The movie has received a fair share of critical acclaim and an audience award at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Beginning March 21, it will be in limited released in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities.

“A Birder’s Guide” tells the story of a pivotal couple of days in the life of bird-obsessed 15-year-old David Portnoy. While his father prepares to be married 18 months after the death of David’s mother, David encounters a duck that he and his two birding pals, Peter and Timmy, cannot identify. A blurry photo suggests it could be a Labrador Duck. Although they know the species is extinct, the possibility that they could rediscover a lost bird prompts them to hit the road in hopes of finding and photographing the duck.

Ellen, a new classmate at their school and a budding photographer, joins them on their quest, and along the way, they consult Lawrence Konrad, an ornithologist played by Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley.

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In a scene from the film, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character David Portnoy talks with ornithologist Lawrence Konrad, played by Ben Kingsley.

The story is at times sweet and funny, and despite a few foibles, the birding world it portrays seems real to me. There’s talk of eclipse plumage, chasing rarities, life birds, and the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Konrad is the editor of Birder’s Way, a fictional magazine, and in his office we see bird paintings and sculptures, several volumes of the authoritative Handbook of the Birds of the World, and an eBird bumper sticker. David draws lovely sketches of birds, and in flashback scenes with his mother, we’re reminded how challenging it can be to spot a small bird amid dense branches.

Plus, Kenn Kaufman, author of our regular “ID Tips” column, who consulted on the film, appears in a scene toward the end of the movie. (How cool is that!)

David even explains to Ellen the three types of birdwatchers: Feeder fillers, who want to attract birds; listers, who keep meticulous life lists; and watchers, who want to make a transcendent connection with birds.

Parents of young birders, take note: The film is rated PG-13, no doubt for the blue language used by the boys, especially Timmy, who are as obsessed with girls almost as much as they are with birds.

Although the movie inhabits the world of birds and birdwatchers, it’s not really about birds and birdwatchers. It’s about a teenage boy quietly grieving the loss of his mother in the face of his tone-deaf father’s impending marriage. Not unlike the best coming-of-age films (“The Breakfast Club,” “Say Anything,” “Juno”), “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” is ultimately about friendship and young love and why we crave both. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

  • backroader

    As a lifelong birder, I found “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” to be a plausible scenario of what it could be like, if you were a teen birder trying to get confirmation of a really rare bird. I was impressed with the young actors and how realistic they seemed.

    Having seen the adult birding movie “The Big Year”, it was easy to imagine these teen birders in “A Birder’s Guide to Everything”, becoming as obsessed as the adult birders in “The Big Year”, 10 or 15 years down the road. That includes dealing with the skepticism of self-proclaimed adult “experts”, as well as the inevitable travel, frustrations and delays.

    I know several birding groups that are interested in mentoring and developing young people, who would probably be interested in using a film like this to inspire young birders. However, I know the gratuitous breast-flashing, swear words and overt references to teen sex, would simply not be suitable for the type of young audience these groups have in mind. I know for sure they would not be happy with me, if I recommended this film to them, with these adult elements still included.

    I really have to wonder who the target audience was for this film – adults, or teens/young birders? It seems to me to have too much teen content to be targeting an adult audience, and too much adult content to
    be targeting a teen audience.

    I can’t remember ever seeing a title of a film, that’s so misleading about the content of a film. For one thing, there’s not enough content about birds to call it a “Birder’s Guide”. Secondly, I certainly didn’t understand the relevance of the “Everything” part of the title either. What was meant by that word?

    I agree with you, that the main theme of this film is “…ultimately about friendship and young love and why we crave both”. It’s about the thoughts, worries and emotions of a group of teens, who just happen to be looking for a rare bird, with the actual birding part only playing a minor role.