You know those creative-writing exercises where students are given three random items — say, a bugle, a beaded dress and the word “avoirdupois” — and then assigned to work them all into a short story? “Little Birds” gives the impression that someone told writer-director Elgin James, “OK, you’ve got the crumbling neighborhoods by the Salton Sea and a burned-out East L.A. motel. Go!”
Those sets ring truer than any of the characters who inhabit them, since James has turned out a listlessly trite tale of two small-town girls from broken homes whose friendship is tested when they venture out into the big, bad world on their own. The result feels like one of those After-School Specials of yore, only with an R rating.
Fifteen-year-olds Lily (Juno Temple, apparently going for a trailer-park trifecta on the heels of “Dirty Girl” and “Killer Joe”) and Alison (Kay Panabaker) are best pals stuck in a town that’s literally rotting away. (The Salton Sea was designed to be a retreat for the rich, but environmental conditions have rendered it nearly uninhabitable.) We know Lily is dying to get out by the way she screams at the top of her lungs while riding on the back of Alison’s bike.
Local adults like Lily’s mom (Leslie Mann) and aunt (Kate Bosworth) seem like they too have been devoured by their town’s famously oversalinated body of water, so when skateboarder Jesse (Kyle Gallner) — in town from L.A. for the day to take advantage of the empty pools behind so many abandoned houses — gives Lily his number, it’s only a matter of time before she sees him as her ticket out of town.
When a reluctant Alison drives Lily to Los Angeles, they discover that Jesse and his friends are actually homeless, holing up in an abandoned motel, and soon the girls get drawn into the boys’ world of petty crime. Will Lily’s desperate need for love and affirmation lead her to turn her back on the devoted Alison?
First-timer James has somehow put together a first-rate cast (which also includes Neal McDonough, Chris Coy and Joel McKinnon Miller), but so much of what he’s written for them is nothing you haven’t seen in dozens of other “I-gotta-get-out-of-this-town” movies. For every moment that feels fresh (Jesse shows Lily the house where his family used to live before it was foreclosed), far too much of “Little Birds” feels like the same-old, same-old.
Temple can, by this point, play the role in her sleep — and she kind of does. There aren’t any glaring missteps from her, but neither are the jolts of inventiveness she’s brought to so many of her recent performances. And despite her best efforts, Panabaker can’t turn Alison into anything but the good girl/voice of reason, which is pretty thankless duty.
There’s an inescapable sense of condescension about the small-town stuff here, while the urban adventures smack of too many self-consciously earnest indies about young people and their struggles. For all the polish provided by the talented cast, this remains an avian turd all the same.