The Central Park Effect: SXSW Review

Visually splendid doc has a narrow scope but will charm bird-lovers.

Bird-lovers need not travel to New York for a close look at the different migrating species of feathered friends highlighted in Jeffrey Kimball's documentary.

AUSTIN -- A nature-lover's doc whose appeal is somewhat broader than it sounds, Jeffrey Kimball's The Central Park Effect will be a hit with the growing population of birders but also boasts a broader human interest. Despite its hour-long running time, it could sustain niche theatrical bookings in NYC and cities with similarly large green spaces before moving to video.

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According to ornithologists interviewed here, major urban parks have a special attraction for migrating birds; on a good day, over a hundred different species can be found in Central Park. But the park and its winged visitors have a similar pull for humans, and Kimball finds some likeable characters who, while most visitors are pitching Frisbees and sunbathing, stand with binoculars trained on branches where a Connecticut Warbler or Olive-sided Flycatcher can be seen. (In a small but charming touch, Kimball lists the film's species in the credits as if each were a featured player.)

In a refreshing twist for this sort of film, none of these human subjects are kooks. Dedicated, yes, and sometimes even teased by friends -- but from the sweet high-school girl to the septuagenarian who leads tours nearly every day in the spring, these are intelligent, socially competent New Yorkers who simply have fallen in love with life in the branches. As author and birder Jonathan Franzen puts it, discovering the variety of birds living overhead is "one of those rare moments in an adult's life when the world seems more magical, not less."

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Kimball captures a staggering number of species, with a variety of colors and patterns that will surprise non-birders, and his high-def photography is crisp enough to satisfy connoisseurs who can distinguish subtle feather patterns from many yards away. The birds are not only gorgeous but, as they poke for food and rustle around, entertaining.

While gathering shots of birds, Kimball also captures the changing seasons in the park, offering not only naturalist appeal but some poignant connections to developments in the lives of his interviewees. Though he never follows these leads far enough to distract from his feathered subjects, The Central Park Effect quietly reminds us that city-dwellers develop hobbies like this not only to connect to nature, but to find others like themselves.

Venue: South By Southwest film festival, Documentary Competition
Production Company: Other Noises
Director-Producer: Jeffrey Kimball
Executive producers:  Pamela Hogan, Tom Casciato
Directors of photography: Tony Pagano, Jeffrey Kimball, Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins
Music: Paul Damian Hogan
Editor: Daniel Baer
Sales: Submarine
No rating, 60 minutes