by Jeremy Grossman
“If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” sang Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Little Birds,” the directorial and screenwriting debut of Elgin James, borrows so much of the spirit and childlike curiosity from the 1939 classic that it is practically a remake. But unlike “The Wizard of Oz,” the audience of “Little Birds” knows that monsters aren’t as easily distinguishable as green-skinned ladies in pointy hats. And instead of Oz, “Little Birds” settles for a fantasy world a bit grittier and more familiar–Los Angeles.
To 15-year-old Lily (indie darling Juno Temple, who recently appeared in “The Dark Knight Rises”), Los Angeles is a place just as fantastic as Oz, which is why she runs away from home and embarks on a journey to the City of Angels. Alongside Lily is her best friend, the bookish and down-to-earth Alison (Kay Panabaker), who would probably just rather be at home playing with sticks.
If Lily plays the role of Dorothy, then Alison plays the role of Toto, the trusted ally who remains with her companion even throughout the most dangerous of obstacles. The chemistry between the two girls is indisputable, and together they emulate the summery, carefree vibe of a childhood friendship that believes anything is possible.
But despite her perfect chemistry with her co-star, Temple has been wrongly cast, and sticks out like a sore thumb whenever she is not interacting with Panabaker. Regardless of her talents as an actress, Temple, who is in her early 20’s, looks too much like an experienced young woman in order to play a girl as confused and childish as Lily. Panabaker, meanwhile, is about the same age as Temple, yet so much more convincing as a girl who still plays dress-up and has never had her first kiss.
The supporting cast is strong, but unfortunately too underdeveloped. Kyle Gallner stands out as a boy in Los Angeles who Lily falls in love with, but big-name actors like Neal McDonough, Kate Boswoth and Leslie Mann are all given a shockingly low amount of attention.
Of course, “Little Birds” isn’t about the adults, and the movie works because James’ vision of childhood, friendship and discovery is so clear and confident. His script is enticing and colorful, even as the colors on the screen are dry and yellow. The film is made up of strong, memorable scenes that range from beautiful to comical to terrifying, including a particularly emotional climax that some viewers may be unable to stomach.
Dorothy Gale may have paved the way for young girls in the cinema to explore and dream and reach for a life that is more interesting than their own. But “The Wizard of Oz” is the sugarcoated version of the story—“Little Birds” is the version that really happened.
Jeremy Grossman is film editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.