Juno Temple, left, as Lily Hobart and Kay Panabaker as Alison Hoffman in… (Millennium Entertainment )
"Little Birds" stars Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker in a story about the messy business, for teenage girls already on the margins, of breaking away. Theirs is a case of innocence not simply lost but crushed like a cigarette under the heel of a shoe.
It is a promising and frustrating first feature from writer-director Elgin James. Breathtaking moments give way to boring ones; searing emotions vie with the exceedingly bland. The one constant in this drama is the incredible beauty James brings to bad places, working with standout cinematographer Reed Morano, who gave 2008's "Frozen River" such a bleak chill.
It begins in the wasteland of California's Salton Sea, a broken place with broken lives and litter lining its shores. This is where 15-year-old Lily (Temple) and Alison (Panabaker), best friends who have already had their share of trauma, have grown up. Each has lost one parent, and the parent who remains is damaged, to say nothing of the girls.
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You might think Lily's the braver girl. She's certainly the risk taker of the two. An early scene of her playing a game of chicken with a speeding train is just a glimpse of how far she's willing to push her luck. Alison is not so eager for adulthood, or at least is willing to take a little time to get there.
That conflict is the spine of the film. There is a great scene that says everything about the relationship — Alison pedaling her bike with abandon, still very much a kid; Lily standing behind, balancing on the back wheel, defying gravity to bring her down. But their bike-riding days are about to end when some skateboarders from L.A. show up. Lily quickly falls for Jesse (Kyle Gallner), the only one in this crew of toughs who seems as if he might be a decent guy. A few stolen kisses and a stolen truck later, and the girls are on their way to Los Angeles to meet up with them.
Whatever Lily and Alison hoped for from the big city, what they get is a lesson in just how cruel life on the streets can be. L.A. has rarely looked less like the land of dreams; you can almost smell the rot in the gutted old motel where the guys have crashed.
But Lily sees only freedom and Jesse in the debris, and there is a surprising sweetness to their relationship. What is harder to watch is Alison trying to keep up, making out with one of the guys (Carlos Pena) who is rough, aggressive and pushing for more than she is ready to give. The filmmaker keeps raising the stakes, and in multiple ways. As their choices get harder, the question becomes not so much whether the friendship makes it, but if they will.
Temple is magnetic on screen. The British actress is becoming something of a specialist in playing bruised young souls as she did not long ago in "Killer Joe" opposite Matthew McConaughey. Panabaker exudes a kind of unspoiled freshness that is imminently appealing and serves to make Alison a good counterpoint to Lily's darkness. Though the plotting is problematic and at times as lost as the kids, there are bursts of brilliance and moments of aching vulnerability in "Little Birds" that make you wonder what the filmmaker might do next.