There’s a misconception about some films that utilize a specific location by gussying it up to be a paradise on camera. Often, the results are “Little Birds,” which was shot on location at the Salton Sea of California, a formative place for impetuous Lily (Juno Temple) and Alison (Kay Panabaker). The two teenage girls, both the result of trailer park lifestyles, spend their days visiting the saltine beach, admiring the view and dreaming of boys, handsome dark types who will whisk them away to what can be considered the “big city.” They appreciate the picturesque landscape, as does the camera. Does the filmmaker?
Elgin James writes and directs this picture, depicting Lily and Alison’s lives as down-home tragic in not unfamiliar ways. Lily is the product of single mom Margaret (Leslie Mann) who can’t help but hit the bars at night, not only refusing to let go of her youth, but seeking someone to care for her petulant, impulsive daughter. Lily is a firebrand, an angry young girl who curses like a sailor, and it’s not hard to see where it originates. Neither her nor her mother seem to realize they’re having yelling matches with their reflection.
Margaret’s sister Bonnie (Kate Bosworth) is similarly bitter, now stuck in the Salton Sea with a husband of limited brain functions after an injury during our overseas occupation. She spends days clutching a bottle and cursing the heavens when she’s not bathing and caring for her immobile live partner. Lily is still only a teenager, and still blossoming with curiosity, though sometimes that manifests itself in moments where she can’t help but stare at him, as he quietly drools, something of a monster to someone like Lily, a dreamer without regret.
Comparitively, Alison lives in the lap of luxury. The soundtrack to Lily’s life is peppered with arguments and slamming doors, but Alison returns home to a quiet trailer where she prepares microwave dinners for kindly father Joseph (David Warshovsky). Her aspirations are less glamorous than Lily’s, mostly having to do with her time spent working on Hogan’s (Neal McDonough) farm. Hogan, a grizzled tough guy of common instincts, claims to have traveled the world, only to have come back with the awareness that, paraphrasing, people are awful all over. There is no fairy tale over the horizon.
But Lily and Alison have never ventured outside of the Salton Sea, knowing only what their elders tell them. Los Angeles is some sort of exotic Shangri-La to them, and when a trio of skater boys drive through, Lily and Alison respond to their affections like peasants lunging towards royalty. Despite limited driving skills, Lilly goads and guilts Alison into steaing Hogan’s truck, and they hit the road to Los Angeles. Predictably, Alison is unimpressed by the seedy city and its garbage-strewn streets, but Lily is ready to embrace anywhere that just isn’t home.
The boys, played by the imposing Chris Coy, the irritating Carlos Pena and the obvious Kyle Gallner, are strictly central casting types, young skeezeballs who only want to make a quick score by jacking goods, committing petty crimes and generally acting a nuisance. Now that they have two attractive young girls, their plan is to lure unwilling men into their abandoned flat with the promise of jailbait sex, the girls eventually standing aside as the boys commence a brutal mugging.
At this moment, “Little Birds” goes from low-key coming-of-age story to afterschool special, as the girls plunge deeper into this criminal world. Too shy to lose her friend, Alison can only mope and fret as Lily throws herself headfirst into the boys’ half-baked schemes. The scheduling of this film is unfortunate, since we’ve just seen Temple, a skilled actress, play a comic variation on this role in the superb “Killer Joe.” “Little Birds” is simplistic and dead serious in contrast, a waste of a capable actress who shouldn’t be playing cliches. The film takes its sweet time building to an inevitable conclusion, causing audience contempt for her simplistic character, particularly how she begins to marginalize her much more sensitive friend. Panabaker is an appealingly wide-faced performer, and it’s almost cruel to pair her with fiery Temple, as it’s never a surprise where sympathy will lie.
Ultimately, the message of “Little Birds” seems to lean towards a “no place like home” reading, except for the fact that home is, to put it harshly, kind of a shithole. Temple and Panabaker are quite good in their lead roles, to the point where you start to hate the fact that the movie’s thesis thrives on the girls being damned if they do, and damned if they don’t: be partners in crime with virginity-leeching jerks, or return to the sea, living out a modest trailer park lifestyle that, James conveys, is a dead end for all. [C-]