Hatched at the Sundance Labs and premiering in Park City, “Little Birds” is such a typical Sundance movie — two restless girls steal a car and drive to the big city, where they learn tough lessons about real life — you almost don’t need to see it to know where it’s headed. To skip, however, would be to miss the arrival of promising new helmer Elgin James and gifted up-and-comer Juno Temple. Regardless, a reasonably promising theatrical future awaits, since younger auds don’t necessarily know “Gas, Food, Lodging,” “L.I.E.” and the myriad other thematically similar Sundance pics that have come before.
Rather than pretending to be the first writer-director to tackle such a story, former gang member James creates characters who are open-ended enough to invite universal identification. By that token, “Little Birds” introduces free spirit Lily (Temple) in the tub, where the self-inflicted cuts on her inner thigh are fresh enough for her to wonder whether death might be better — or at least less boring — than having to live in Salton Sea, Calif.
Lily needs only look at her mother (Leslie Mann) and aunt (Kate Bosworth) to see the future that awaits her in this dried-up old lakebed of a town. At 15, Lily has clearly outgrown this dump, and rather than wait another day, she enlists best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker) to steal her uncle’s truck and drive to Los Angeles. Though the story can’t really start until they hit the road, “Little Birds” spends nearly half its running time in Salton Sea, wallowing in how little there is for the girls to do, except dodge trains and pick fights with their trailer-park neighbors.
Oddly enough, though the content of these scenes more than demonstrates the girls’ small-town ennui, the footage itself is so gorgeous as to contradict the idea that Los Angeles could possibly improve upon this paradise. Reed Morano’s lensing radiates texture and warmth, and though he doesn’t overdo it, James can hardly resist the occasional scenic insert shot — a strategy that dates back at least as far as Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” an early prototype in the same small-town-girls-gone-bad genre.
Lily picks L.A. as her target for two reasons: First, after years of living near an inland salt lake, she craves a real beach, but more importantly, L.A. is where she can find Jesse (Kyle Gallner), the skateboarder who stole her first kiss in Salton Sea. Lily craves male validation, filling an emotional void that may have something to do with her father’s death by suicide. That emptiness leaves Lily overly eager to please Jesse and his friends, who take advantage of that vulnerability by enlisting her in their criminal schemes, while reluctant accomplice Alison does her best to object from the sidelines.
Although the Salton Sea location feels fresh, the same cannot be said for L.A., with the latter half of “Little Birds” evoking such cautionary SoCal classics as Allison Anders’ “Mi Vida Loca” and Larry Clark’s “Wassup Rockers.” It wouldn’t necessarily take someone with a history of gang involvement to make these scenes feel authentic, though James brings a level of specificity to the L.A. portion of the film — as in the poignant scene where Jesse and Lily compare scars — that is sorely lacking in the opening reels.
Without feeling didactic, “Little Birds” is about nothing if not the impulses that make stray souls want to belong to something bigger than themselves. The takeaway, as articulated by characters old enough to know and intuited by Alison (who looks younger than Lily but seems to have a more mature grasp on things), is that Lily is merely running away from herself, and a change of geography won’t make her life any less miserable. If she wants to avoid the unhappiness she senses in others, she’ll have to learn to love herself first.
Temple plays a similarly insecure character in the recent “Dirty Girl,” and by the time “Little Birds” opens, auds may have a better idea of who she is. Watching Temple’s alternately fierce and fragile turn, you’d never guess the actress hails from the U.K. There’s absolutely no trace of accent, although the rawness found in the film’s high-tension finale is somewhat absent earlier, as James asks her and Panabaker perhaps one too many times to gaze soulfully out at the horizon while pop songs play during the film’s Salton Sea stretch. Perhaps starting with Lily’s suicide attempt (rather than obliquely referring to it) might have given this semi-generic story more momentum out of the gate.