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April 6, 2017

A Birder’s Guide to Everything

by Franz Patrick


Birder’s Guide to Everything, A (2013)
★ / ★★★★

David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young birder whose mother has passed away. He is unhappy that his father (James Le Gros) is about to get married to the nurse who took care of his mom during her last days.

While riding his bike, David comes across a duck that is believed to be extinct. However, he fails to take a clear picture of it since he does not have the proper equipment at the time. He proposes to his birder classmates (Alex Wolff, Michael Chen) that they attempt to find the potential Lazarus species. If what David had seen is, in fact, Camptorhynchus labradorius, it would be the biggest ontological find in recent history.

“A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” written by Luke Matheny and Rob Meyer, is a slow-moving, phony, unfunny, and profoundly unmoving bore. Just about every human relationship comes off either severely underdeveloped or forced and so we never really buy into the images on screen or the emotions being portrayed. And for a movie with a main character who is so into birding, the material never gets specific.

It is crucial that we understand David’s passion in great detail. What is it exactly that draws him into watching birds? Is it because he admires the diversity of these animals in terms of size, color, or the sounds they make? Since his late mother introduced him to birding, does he have the passion for it because of what the activity symbolizes? To him, do the birds serve as a metaphor? These are only a few of the many questions worth asking but the picture does not bother to go beyond expectations.

David’s friends are painfully boring and unlikable. They are played as nerds and that is supposed to be funny, I guess. There is no sweetness in David’s interaction with Timmy (Wolff) and Peter (Chen). As a result, when the would-be emotional arc comes rolling around in the latter half, I felt nothing from the performances. I felt the screenplay trying to reel in my sympathy and it made me angry because it had not been earned.

Perhaps one of the few bright moments in the film is the cutesy potential romance between David and a classmate named Ellen (Katie Chang) who is very much into photography. I enjoyed that it is obvious she likes him and David knows it. However, he is too shy to do anything about it. So, it is easier to assume that she will make the first move. The problem is, both of them are inexperienced when it comes to that department and so nothing much happens most of the time. We root for these two to take a chance.

The father’s upcoming marriage is an important part of the plot and so he should be written with complexity. Donald has as much character as a plank so none of the drama works. The so-called dramatic scenes between father and son are written so badly and executed with such a lack of energy, we do not believe that the characters have lived, let alone known each other for years.

The protagonist’s interests, friends, and life at home are neither written nor executed well. So, what else is there? There is a subplot involving a renowned birder (Ben Kingsley) who was acquainted with David’s late mother. Kingsley is either miscast or the actor made the wrong choice of making the character to be too much of an oddball.

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