Film Review: Little Birds

Coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical drama about two frisky teen gal pals lured to L.A. from a trailer-trashy Salton Sea community by visiting male strays has flashes of adventure and danger, but too much “So what?”.

Credibility in Little Birds, which focuses on a group of aimless kids going big-city bad, gets some persuasive shadings from filmmaker Elgin James, whose background of crime, prison time and homelessness inform this work. But such familiarity does not mean his debut effort, impressive for its performances and his direction, makes for a satisfying cinematic journey. Its embrace at Sundance, however, may spur initial interest.

Little Birds follows best friends Lily (Juno Temple) and Alison (Kay Panabaker), who live in cheerless homes, reeking of ’70s tackiness and neglect, near the desolate Salton Sea, a flat, nearly treeless expanse of shabbiness. Rebellious Lily, who has a tendency to cut herself and take chances on the railroad tracks, resists therapy. Her single mother Margaret (Leslie Mann), whose husband died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, is bent upon hooking up with a new mate. Alison has Hogan (Neal McDonough), a humble, cynical laborer, as her guardian. Also in this toxic mix of Salton Sea folk is a vicious, foul-mouthed bully, a downtrodden Aunt Bonnie (Kate Bosworth), and a special-needs family member, all of whom enhance the dead-end vibe of the girls’ lives in this ghost town.

No wonder Lily and Alison are easy prey for a gaggle of day-tripping L.A. street guys who include Jesse (Kyle Gallner), David (Chris Coy) and Louis (Carlos Pena). Lily, who is immediately attracted to Jesse, is the more eager to accept the gang’s suggestion that they follow them to the big city. When Alison asks her what’s so great about L.A., she answers, “L.A. isn’t here.”

Soon the pair, with Alison behind the wheel of Hogan’s stolen truck, are off. After some shoplifting along the way and just a bit too quickly without GPS, they arrive at the abandoned motel room that the guys have turned into their squatters’ digs.

The trio are petty thugs and scammers who devise an Internet scheme that has Lily serving as bait for men seeking sex; the guys subsequently rob the johns. Alison has reservations about all this, especially when she sees that David has a gun. The weapon, of course, is the tipoff that matters will escalate to a peak that tests not just the power of the girls’ friendship.

Little Birds might have worked had the stakes been upped and had one character been given some complexity and appeal. As is, the film is a nice showcase for the actors and gives Juno Temple (Jack and Diane, Cracks, and the current Killer Joe) yet another opportunity to play some degree of bad.