A Birder's Guide to Everything

Rob Meyer
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Rob Meyer, Luke Matheny
Kodi Smit-McPhee, James Le Gros, Daniela Lavender
Screening Date:
  • 9 Mar 2021
  • Categories:
    Adventure, Comedy, Drama

    Coming-of-age film about David, a fifteen-year-old birding fanatic, who believes he's made the discovery of a lifetime and departs on an epic road trip with his best friends to solidify their place in birding history.

    Film Notes

    A birder's guide to everything - review.

    A 15-year-old birding enthusiast thinks he's made the discovery of a lifetime -- spotting an extinct bird. The weekend of his widowed father's wedding, three friends join him on an epic road trip to pursue and photograph this bird, thereby earning their place in birding history. But they discover much more than a rare bird.

    What would you do if you spotted a bird that was thought extinct for roughly 150 years? You'd snap a photograph of it, of course. That's what birding enthusiast David Portnoy does, only to later see that his photograph was too blurry to be definitive. So in the whimsical adventure, A Birder's Guide to Everything David and a few school friends set out on a road trip to get a better photograph of this migrating bird, thereby earning their place in birding history. But in their pursuit of this rare bird, they end up finding a deeper understanding of the adults in their lives, of each other, and of themselves.

    David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a shy 15-year-old high school sophomore whose mother shared her passion for birds with him. Eighteen months after her untimely death, birds still provide David with a vital link to her memory as he struggles to deal with his monumental loss.

    We join David just when he's thinks he's spotted something truly unprecedented -- a supposedly extinct duck species running down the middle of a suburban New York City street. Of course, such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence as proof -- and one blurry photograph just won't do it.

    So David and the other members of the Young Birder's Society, Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen), decide to get a stronger camera lens, chase down the migrating duck, which they predict is headed towards a lake in the woods of Connecticut, and snap some clearer pictures. They are joined in their quest by David's classmate, Ellen (Katie Chang), who has "five years of photography experience" -- and a powerful telephoto lens from which she refuses to be separated.

    The day before David's widowed father (James LeGros) marries for the second time, the foursome hurriedly depart on a wacky road trip in a ramshackle car that sings like a black-and-white warbler -- never mind that David is supposed to be Best Man.

    Along the way, they run across the cantankerous writer and birding legend, Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley), who was hired as a guide by two men who are also eagerly seeking this illusory bird -- apparently with an eye towards stealing the credit for photographing it first.

    The film explains bird watching -- birding -- often in a self-deprecating way to an audience that probably doesn't know much about it. For example, in one amusing scene, David tells Ellen, with wit and a minimum of dialogue, about the different sorts of birders; the feeder-fillers and the data-driven listers before she prompts him into mentioning the more spiritual watchers.

    "Now, the watchers -- this is Lawrence Konrad's definition -- they want to achieve a transcendent connection between nature that erases any distinction between, I guess, human and bird souls", David says.

    But this connection is as ephemeral as the bird they all are pursuing -- even for David's much-admired role model, Lawrence, who at one point in the film, professes: "Birds are my muses, and I strive to be a true watcher."

    The dialogue is witty and wonderfully believable. The campfire scene where the four friends discuss their lack of sexual experience is especially realistic and amusing.

    The bird is this flick's Holy Grail: although this poignant film uses birding as the main impetus to bring all these people together, this really is not a story about watching birds at all -- any obsession could have served the same purpose. For this reason, you don't have to be a birder to enjoy it. The movie shows that seeking the rare and elusive is often more than just a physical quest; it also is a spiritual journey that changes the seeker.

    "I'm sixty-three years old and very much alone. I guide assholes for money. I have one leg and no driver's license", asserts the prickly and flawed Lawrence to an adoring David at one point. "Please do not confuse me with a role model."

    The film also -- gently -- suggests that the loss of a species, like the loss of a beloved parent, is a terrible tragedy with far-reaching, permanent consequences.

    Writer and expert birder, Kenn Kaufman, acted as consultant on this film, and also had a brief cameo appearance during the wedding scene (you'll see him give a suit jacket to David). Kaufman ensured that the birding jargon was appropriate and that the birds were correctly matched to their songs and habitats. Unfortunately, despite his expert guidance, some errors still managed to slip through.

    For example, I was truly surprised that the Labrador duck was mistakenly identified as the first bird species known to have become extinct in North America when in fact it was second. The first North American bird extinction is a dubious honour belonging to another famous seabird, the great auk.

    I am probably part of a loud chorus of birders complaining about the film's "Labrador duck" look-alike -- a female mallard. Mallards are dabbling ducks that feed off the surface of the water, whereas the extinct Labrador duck was a diving species that dined on small mollusks sifted from the muddy bottom of shallow bodies of water. Of course, I could nit-pick every little detail about this particular choice of bird actor, but I'll instead show you photographs of the two species side-by-side because you don't need to be a devoted birder to see their many differences:

    However, don't let my niggling criticisms about the duck discourage you from watching this sweet funny film, because you and your entire family will enjoy it.

    GrrlScientist, The Guardian, 12 May 2014.

    A Birder's Guide to Everything

    Fifteen-year-old David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee, in a beautifully natural performance) is still grieving the loss of his mother when his dad (James LeGros) decides to re-marry. Even worse, Dad is going to marry the nurse (Daniela Lavender) who took care of his mom in her final months. David, a shy and emotional kid, has thrown himself into amateur bird-watching, following in the steps of his passionate dead mother, who we learn, later, was "one of the unsung heroes of birding". The under-seen 2011 film "The Big Year" was another story about the wonders of birding, its competitive nature, its obsessive cataloging of detail. "A Birder's Guide to Everything" uses birding as the launching point for a tender and gentle coming-of-age story, as well as a meditation on grief and letting go. It is also that very rare thing, a movie about teenagers where the characters actually seem like real teenagers, as opposed to mini posing adults. There's an innocence here, a real sweetness. Director Rob Meyer (the script was co-written by Meyer and Luke Matheny) finds the right tone early, sweet and almost sad, and, except for a few minor bumps along the way, doesn't falter with that tone. The coming-of-age clichés are certainly present here, but handled so sensitively that you don't mind it. The film cares about these characters.

    David is part of a birding club at school, which consists of only three members: David, Peter (Michael Chen), who runs the meetings officiously, saying things like, "The Chair recognizes the Speaker…", and Timmy (Alex Wolff), who seems to operate under the mistaken impression that ornithology will make him a total chick magnet. Unfortunately, the only girl in the group quit, having grown tired of Timmy's "tufted tit-mouse" jokes. But all of the boys are serious birders. They are ambitious and they know their stuff. "A Birder's Guide to Everything" doesn't forget that teenagers are not just obsessed with sex and peer-popularity at school, although those "types" may dominate popular cinema. Nerds and geeks are usually the sidekicks in coming-of-age films, but here they take center stage. They are not handled patronizingly. Nobody is mocked for being smart, for having their nose in a book, for wanting to acquire knowledge.

    One day, riding home from school, David catches sight of a strange-looking duck waddling across the road. He takes a blurred picture, and enlists the opinion of a famous local ornithologist, Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley), who takes one look at the photo and thinks that David may very well have captured on film a duck thought to be extinct. Lawrence Konrad has devoted his life to birding, even lost a leg in the pursuit. He has written a memoir called "Look To the Skies", which young David has read five times. Konrad suggests to the excited boys that the bird's migration pattern means it may be in such-and-such a place the following weekend, if they wanted to try to track it. Naturally, that is also the weekend of David's dad's re-marriage. Things are tense at home. James LeGros plays the father as a well-meaning guy who has clearly been derailed by his wife's death in ways he cannot begin to understand. And his son's trauma is incomprehensible to him. Dad says at one point, "Everything happens for a reason," and then hastens to take the insensitive comment back when he sees his son's devastated face. 

    David and his friends decide to borrow the car of Timmy's cousin, even though none of them have their licenses yet, and take a road trip to find the bird. They need a better camera, though, and so Ellen ("The Bling Ring"'s Katie Chang) comes along for the ride, brandishing her telephoto lens. She's not a birder but she's got the best gear. She's new in town, her father being in the Air Force. A girl in their midst throws everyone off, in a way that feels sweet and right, as opposed to lascivious and leering. She is interested in learning about birding, and David points things out to her as they tramp through the woods, her face agog as she stares up into the trees.

    A birder's course is never smooth, and there are other competitive birders who get wind that the awkward teens may be on to a big discovery. Lawrence Konrad himself may not be above a little treachery. Kingsley plays the role with a twinkling gusto: he is an intellectual and tough-minded man, who also represents a father figure to David: Konrad knew David's mother well, he respected her achievements. David feels like his mother is being erased by his Dad's re-marriage and the callous giving away of her possessions. He doesn't want his mother to be erased. He wonders if he will ever recover.

    Moments of humor are sprinkled throughout, and while some of the jokes miss the mark (a whole bit about drugs in the car falls flat), the film flows on in its gentle way to the next moment. Nothing is derailed. The boys, in trying to hide their plans from the other birders encroaching on their quest, speak in stilted high school Spanish, the subtitles informing us that Peter is saying, "I will deceive them with agreement." As the kids lie in their sleeping bags around the campfire, one of them says, lazily, "Ever wish the earth was more like Middle Earth?" There is a pause, and one of the other other kids replies, "All the time." In a scene around the campfire, the four kids admit, one by one, that none of them has ever kissed anyone. Well, Ellen kissed one boy at a party once, but that's it. Meyer handles this scene delicately, soft-pedaling the sentimentality, and creating a small intimate breathing space where another type of teen can exist on the screen. It's refreshing.

    At one point, David describes to Ellen the different kinds of birders, broken down by Konrad in his memoir: There are "feeders" and "listers" and, the highest level, "watchers". Watchers are the ones who actually learn how to see, whose obsession drives them into transcendent layers of sight, where the delineation between the bird and the watcher becomes irrelevant. It is a place of one-ness with your passion, with nature. Konrad admitted in his memoir that he was a "lister" who "strives to be a watcher". David's memories of his mother are already fading. He thinks he will never get over the loss. His dad doesn't get it. His friends are kind, but they don't get it either. David is a also "lister" striving to be "watcher". Watching will include not only the birds through his binoculars, but his father, his lost mother, his new stepmom, his friends, himself.

    Sheila O'Malley, Roger Ebert.com, 



    What you thought about A Birder's Guide to Everything

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    7 (23%) 17 (55%) 6 (19%) 0 (0%) 1 (3%)
    Total Number of Responses: 31
    Film Score (0-5): 3.94

    Collated Response Comments

    We had 62 users tune in for the online screening of A Birder's Guide to Everything. The combined scores from the star system and the website delivered a score of 3.94. 

    "A good coming of age movie allows you to tick an awful lot of boxes and pack a hefty emotional punch, reminding us all of our own youthful battles and slimmer waistlines. All too often they're fun but on the glib side; 'Ferris Buellers' day off', 'Superbad', etc, or of the John Hughes Hollywood cool school of 'Breakfast Club' or 'Pretty in pink'. This is altogether more in the class of 'Gregory's Girl', 'Dazed & confused', 'Stand by me', 'Juno', etc: with entirely plausible geeks and a hero with an awful lot of reality to come to terms with wrapped around the McGuffin of a supposedly extinct duck sighting. The kids are all sufficiently gawky, loose limbed and wide-eyed to convince as genuine 15 year olds and Ben Kingsley has a lot of fun as the one legged Gandalf to Kodi-Smit McPhee's Frodo. Thus the weighty issues of acceptance of death, parental fallibility, sex and the end of childhood are introduced without overburdening the story. Oh to be 15 again..."

    "Quite modest in scope and ambition, conventional, which takes some of the zest out of its unusual premise. Pleased this didn't pander to a single sentiment, in its own quaint and perhaps quirky way. Struck me as being pretty honest, maybe earnest, without losing a sense of humour. Wasn't sure where the father/son thread was going but it reveals itself finally. Liked the set-up of 4 teenagers trying to find a supposedly extinct duck that hasn't been glimpsed in North America in over 100 years, which turns into a journey of a different sort of finding out. Adolescent feelings, upsurge of libidinous senses that develop at different rates. Liked the chat between David and Ellen, that refers to acronym for bird identification -- General Impression, Shape and Size - with it phonetically matching a slang for male ejaculate; no labouring the gag. This felt perfectly real and of the teenage experience. Ellen clearly fancies David early on, but it takes some time and circumstances for David's eyes to open. There's a gangly quality to David, Chang is delightful, with Kingsley, slightly odd ball. Visually, the film feels quite slick and the soundtrack, conveys a similar independent spirit. Reminded me of STAND BY ME; boys' rites of passage; mandatory fight between friends is dealt with as quickly as it arrives, and everything moves towards a big final speech that doubles as an apology, tying everything together nicely. Maybe that's what it is – a 'nice' film."

    "Nice juxtaposition with The Nile Hilton Hilton Incident. It just kept on the right side of cloying, even if that meant killing the extinct duck. I enjoyed it, but I do wonder how many coming of age movies a man of my years can take. Time to re-watch Haneke's L'Amour."

    "Just the kind of feel good film we need at a time like this."

    "Nothing that we haven't seen before, really, but with mostly engaging performances and great scenery (I used to love driving through upstate New York and am somewhat worried that I'll never get back there again!)."

    "Perfectly pleasant film for a lockdown night!"

    "Charming and relaxing film to watch. Nice to see one that just had a simple message and didn't tax the brain, for a change!"


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