Review: A Birder's Guide to Everything
Duck hunt: Ellen (Katie Chang), Timmy (Alex Wolff), David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Peter (Michael Chen) search for an extinct bird.
I’ve always thought ducks were pretty great. They’re beautiful birds big enough to see a good amount of detail. They tend to stay in one place long enough to offer a really satisfying look, sometimes with the naked eye. And often many species congregate together—on open water.
So when I heard that Rob Meyer and Luke Matheny’s new film “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” was about four high schoolers chasing a long-forgotten duck, I was pretty stoked. After seeing the movie Monday, I can say wholeheartedly that it didn’t disappoint.
When 15-year-old David Portney, an angst-filled bird lover played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, thinks he spots the extinct Labrador duck, he snaps a few blurry photos, then rounds up his Young Birders Society cohorts—Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen)—to vote on whether to chase the animal. Two yays, one nay. When Lawrence Konrad (Sir Ben Kingsley), renowned editor of a fictional birding magazine, eggs them on, the trio heads into the woods in search of the duck, with sleeping bags and Portney’s love interest, Ellen (Katie Chang), in tow.
Before we go any further, I feel it’s my duty as an Audubon magazine editor to provide a little information about the species the teens are after. The Labrador duck was considered the first bird found only in continental North America to go extinct. “The species disappeared before much could be learned about its biology,” notes Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Its peculiar bill suggests that the bird sifted shellfish and crustaceans from silt and shallow water.” The species wintered along the Atlantic coast, with the last reported spotting in 1878.
No doubt Portney and his friends knew all that, plus more. And no doubt they didn’t care. After all, what’s 135 years when you think you’ve got a really unique sighting?
Don’t be fooled into thinking the movie’s all about avians. Despite its title and its narrative thread, there’s a heckuva lot more going on. Portney faces grief and a first kiss. All the teens deal with hormone-driven awkwardness. Drugs even come up in conversation—at least twice. At the heart of the film is a sweetness and naiveté about life, love, and loss. Simply put, this film’s got a little something for everyone, birder or not. Who knew the hunt for an extinct bird could be so satisfying?