By Simon Mustoe

Curious Films - A Birder's Guide to Everything (Review)

“I'm 63 years old and very much alone. I guide arseholes for money. I have one leg and no driver's license. Please do not confuse me with a role model.”

Lawrence Konrad’s tirade is aimed at teenage birder David Portney (Kodi Smit-McPhee [1]). Chance brings Konrad (Ben Kingsley) and Portney together after Portney thinks he might have photographed the throught-to-be-long-extinct Labrador Duck. 

Since the death of his mother Dorothy, a famous ornithologist, David has struggled to find purpose - his sole interest is birding and his only confidants are teenage friends Peter Nessbaum (Michael Chen) and Timmy Barsky (Alex Wolff). To top it all, he is struggling to come to terms with his father’s impending marriage to his late mother’s nurse Juliana.

The three teenagers, who make up the school’s ‘Young Birder’s Society’, pay Konrad a visit for advice about David’s potentially monumental discovery.       

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Konrad, who is a local birding guru, humours the young lads … “get yourselves a better camera, one with a strong telephoto lens. Having the wrong gear is precisely why this photo is ultimately useless” he says. Then Konrad discovers he knew Portney’s mother. “She was a real unsung hero of birding. That must have been awful. I'm deeply sorry for your loss”, he says. 

From there the plot turns into a delicate farce - one of the film’s delights is the way situations play out sympathetically and with exquisite humility. It’s a journey of discovery revolving around a group of typically naive teenagers, living in the moment and travelling together on a forlorn mission that’s a metaphor for Portney’s problems. As he is soon to discover, the expedition forces him to face reality and take responsibility for his own decisions. 

Kingsley’s portrayal of Konrad is beautiful - coming across like a sort-of birding ‘renaissance man’, his calm exterior belying a crackpot fanaticism, periods of confabulation, overlaid with wisdom of years and a deep respect for both the absurdity and simplicity of human endeavour.

Ellen Reeves (Katie Chang) joins the ill-fated journey after confronting the boys for purloining the school’s telephoto lens and persuades them to allow her to come along as photographer. 

Following Konrad’s advice, the four plan their expedition to Cockaponset State Forest, “and not just because it has the word ‘cock’ in it!”, exclaims Barsky. They steal Nessbaum cousin’s car and set out on their unlikely road trip, despite the fact Portney’s father is due to get married the very next day.        

It’s director Rob Meyer’s first feature film, co-written with Oscar-nominated Luke Matheny. There are times when you might expect moments of eccentricity, for the sake of comedy, but the writers have resisted.

Instead, throughout, this film is a simple, charming and refreshingly sincere depiction of teenage years.   

A Birder’s Guide to Everything is about three friends who care more about chasing a rare bird than they do about each other or the people closest to them. 

As the heartfelt story unfolds, the boys learn they don’t need role models and happiness comes from being themselves and thinking about the people around them, who love them most. 

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1. Lead actor Kodi Smit-McPhee was born in Adelaide and Australian audiences can look forward to seeing him in the forthcoming mini-series ‘Gallopoli’.  

Books

Wildiaries • December 2014