Little Birds: Sundance Review

Justin Colt
Debut by writer/director Elgin James offers a sensitive but not fragile look at young friends in a crisis.

Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker star in the largely quiet and personal film.

PARK CITY — Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition — Two girls on the cusp of womanhood have their friendship tested in Little Birds, an assured debut set in the toxic surroundings of the Salton Sea. Attuned to the yearnings of middle-of-nowhere teenage-dom, it includes just enough danger to sustain dramatic momentum, giving it a chance with audiences outside the arthouse ghetto. Warm reception on the fest circuit is assured, especially given writer/director Elgin James' backstory as a gang member-turned-pacifist filmmaker.

The picture could have been a Kids-like scarefest in which out-of-touch adults voyeuristically observe teens in peril. But James isn't interested in shocking us, and would rather focus on observing the poignant tension between his two protagonists -- one of whom (Lily, played with heat by Juno Temple) aches to escape her dried-up environs while the other (Kay Panabaker's good-girl Alison) embraces what few joys the place offers.

James spends just long enough in the girls' homes to show what Lily is afraid of becoming: an aunt tethered to her disabled-vet husband; a mother who hangs out in bars to meet men. When the girls encounter some road-tripping skateboarders from L.A., it's only a matter of time before Lily convinces Alison to "borrow" her boss' truck and go visit them.

The trip's beginning vividly captures the excitement of rule-breaking adolescent adventure. As things get darker, though (those skate dudes, squatting in an abandoned hotel, aren't the most considerate hosts), James and the two actresses perfectly communicate the crises of conscience and nerve that create a rift between the friends.

Little shocks give way to criminal plot threads that cast more commercial shading across this largely quiet, personal film. But the center holds, and Little Birds never takes its eyes off the relationship it exists to chronicle.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition
Production Company: Hunting Lane Films
Cast: Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker, Neal McDonough, Kyle Gallner, Chris Coy, Carlo Pena, JR Bourne, David Warshofsky, Joel McKinnon Miller, Kate Bosworth, Leslie Mann
Director-screenwriter-music: Elgin James
Producers: Jamie Patricof, Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky
Executive producer: Max Burger, Monique Burger
Director of photography: Reed Morano
Production designer: Todd Fjelsted
Costume designer: Trayce Field
Editor: Suzanne Spangler
Sales: Kevin Iwashina
No rating, 96 minutes