There are few landscapes more ugly-beautiful than the Salton Sea, and this lunarlike California region serves as the metaphor-ripe terrain for the latest tale of teenage discontent. Slouched between her run-down aunt (Kate Bosworth) and a single mom who’s trying too hard to connect (Leslie Mann), restless Lily (Juno Temple) finds an excuse to get out of Dodge in the form of a slumming L.A. skate punk (Kyle Gallner). Accompanied by her impressionable—and secretly besotted—best friend (Kay Panabaker), Lily sneaks off to the City of Angels, where she orders up a familiar cocktail of anarchic fun and snowballing criminality.
Writer, director and composer Elgin James knows from such youthful missteps—he’s served time for his involvement with Boston’s skull-crushing hardcore crew FSU—and his debut expresses the swiftness with which verbal posturing can erupt into violence. The problem is that screen mayhem has a tendency to translate as hip posturing, and
Little Birds’ scenes of shoplifting shenanigans and pistol-whipping showdowns all too readily conform to indie-film form and style. With her wild blond mane and creepy-cute grin, the suddenly ubiquitous Temple is as watchable as ever, yet she struggles to make Lily into more than an archetypal lost girl autopiloting into a wrong turn. Her journey may be realistic, but here it’s treated like just another layer of emo-existentialist affect.
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