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Tribeca Diary: 'A Birder's Guide To Everything'

A ragtag group of amateur birders pursue a rare North American duck in <em>A Birder's Guide to Everything</em>. Pictured (from left): Katie Chang, Alex Wolff, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Chen.
Tribeca Film Festival
A ragtag group of amateur birders pursue a rare North American duck in A Birder's Guide to Everything. Pictured (from left): Katie Chang, Alex Wolff, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Chen.

Writer Joel Arnold is surveying the scene at the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in New York City through April 28. He'll be filing occasional dispatches for Monkey See.

Birding has been getting some attention lately. Last year's HBO documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect, plus various appreciations this year of remarkable birder Starr Saphir following her death, have brought the hobby and those who live to do it closer to the mainstream.

The learning curve, too, is gentler than ever, with apps available to make the pursuit more accessible. And people are starting to get the message that, yes, it's called birding, not birdwatching.

It's a positive sign, then, that in the heartfelt coming-of-age movie A Birder's Guide to Everything, birding has reached cultural saturation sufficiently that it's treated not as a gimmick, as in the recent Jack Black-Steve Martin-Owen Wilson comedy The Big Year, but as an extension of character.

Director Rob Meyer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Matheny, reworks themes of grief and renewal similar to those explored in his short film Aquarium, but he shifts his quiet protagonist's interest from fish to birds — and the vehicle for the hero's catharsis onto the search for an extinct species.

Early on, Meyer deftly makes clear that David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a kid more interested in training his binoculars on a warbler than on the girl next door. Lest you pigeonhole birders as some bespectacled, high-watered archetype, however, Meyer gives us David's foul-mouthed best friend, Timmy (Alex Wolff), who is also an active member of their high school's Young Birder Society, along with their Type A friend Peter (Michael Chen). They're serious about their birding, but their society's meetings ring with the irreverence of Superbad -- even when they're speaking Latin.

David's possible discovery of a living Labrador duck, a North American species thought to be extinct, sends the guys to Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley), an enigmatic titan of the birding world. Konrad confirms that David's shaky photo could be a Labrador, but the excitement of that meeting is tempered by the painful reminder that Konrad knew David's mother, an unsung birding hero who passed away a year-and-a-half before. David is still grieving, a process not helped by the fact that his nonbirding dad (James LeGros) is getting married in just a few days — to his mother's nurse.

With father and son not communicating, David hits the road with Timmy and Peter to get crisp photo evidence of that elusive duck — and escape the wedding. To get hold of a quality camera, the boys' club is forced to bring along new girl Ellen (Katie Chang). At first the character seems to be there only to provide David with the requisite love interest, but Meyer and Matheny twist that coming-of-age trope toward emotional authenticity.

The film is far from a melancholy wallow, but it does examine the ways we cope with loss and the conflicts that result when one person's healing process is faster or different from another's. David aspires to be a watcher, a birder who truly communes with nature through the act of seeing. A Birder's Guide to Everything encourages us to bring the same sense of attunement to each other — to recognize the humanity in everyone we see.

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Joel Arnold

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