“The Bird Can’t Fly” is a surreal combination of symbolism, New Age-ism and Barbara Hershey that expends too little effort to make its insular little world either credible or pleasurable. Pic’s distinctive South African setting and striking visuals are not enough to compensate for a script that fails to translates its good intentions into plausible drama. Hershey struggles earnestly at the pic’s emotional center to hold it all together, but apart from the odd fest pickup, this “Bird” looks like a dodo.
After 11 years away, pastry chef Melody (Hershey), somewhat starchy herself, returns home to her former mining town, arriving just in time for the end of her daughter June’s funeral. Her daughter’s partner, crippled moral ruin Scoop (Tony Kgoroge), the local postman, is a passive slob who spends his time composing sentimental songs. Their son River (Yusuf Davids) is a bratobsessed by war paraphernalia, with a plan to raise ostriches.
Scoop tells Melody to leave, and her initial meetings with River are disastrous. But when she does try to go (after her best attempts to bring some order and happiness to the chaos are rebuffed), a sandstorm of Shakespearean proportions halts her departure.
The storm, which implausibly kills some and morally improves others, leads to a visually stunning final scene that, like so many others in pic, is dramatically unearned. Along the way, aud is subjected to some real silliness.
Lensing makes the most of the bright, white dreamscape setting, and helmer Threes Anna cannot be faulted for her memorable, oddly angled images — many featuring ostriches, which in some respects are the stars of the show.
Eco-message is laudable, the broken-down old town is a fair symbol for the decline of the West, and pic’s suggestion that men are at the root of every possible problem (aside from an old grocery store owner played by John Kani), is interesting if misguided. But drama is sacrificed to the message, while the lone plot twist is visible from 20 miles away.
Hershey, her jaw set, typically throws herself into a physically demanding role as a woman doing her best against the odds, but some of the other thesping is suspect. Kgoroge, in particular, seems to function within a single register, while greater nuance would have made the figure of River slightly less repellent.
Score is a pleasantly downbeat counterpoint to the onscreen excess.