In general, teenage obsessions are generally fairly obvious—music, comics, movies, clothes—but there are always a few teens whose interests, at least at the time, seem completely inexplicable, to everyone except themselves. So, it's not quite a surprise that the high school birdwatching club in "A Birder's Guide To Everything" consists solely of David (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen), three best friends surviving adolescence by sticking with each other, and keeping an eye on the sky. But feathered distractions can't keep the changes from coming in David's life, and one weekend will see him give chase to a rare bird, and making peace with both his past and future.
As you might surmise from that opening, co-writer and director Rob Meyer's film doesn't reinvent the indie movie wheel by any stretch of the imagination. But it's also comfortably aware of its modest scope and ambition, and the film operates rather efficiently in its own minor-key way. The story itself is rather straightforward, with David's sighting of a duck, previously believed to be extinct, kicking off a search—with Timmy, Peter and Ellen (Katie Chang), who has access to the necessary telephoto lens and camera, in tow—to find it again and document its existence. Of course, the trip happens to coincide with the weekend of his father Donald's (James Le Gros) marriage to his new girlfriend Juliana (Daniela Lavender), even as David is still mourning the passing of his mother eighteen months earlier.
While the stew of ingredients is familiar, and the revelations and lessons learned in the film's barely 90 minute runtime predictably arrive within the required three act arc, it goes down pleasurably enough, thanks to the quartet of kids. Particularly in the first two-thirds of the film, Meyer and co-writer Luke Matheny's script finds a fairly authentic voice for the friendship between David, Timmy and Peter, with the actors embodying their roles with familiarity and ease. McPhee in particular strikes the right chord of awkward and earnest, underscored by a subtle note of teenage pain. Wolff fills the role of the motor-mouthed comedic relief, but where it would easy to push it further with hyperactivity and volume, he pulls them back and infuses it with a sly lack of self-confidence. And when Ellen inserts herself into the picture, Meyer and co again play the situation with an understanding that few movies have; her presence isn't a threat to the unit of these three boys, who instead shift their dynamic to include another outsider into their core.
But when it comes time for the plotlines to resolve as the film heads into the third act, the breeziness of Meyer's script can't hold up the clichés it engages in as it wraps things up. Romance blossoms where it should, the mandatory fight between friends is dealt with as quickly as it arrives, and everything moves towards a big final speech that doubles as an apology, tying everything together nicely. It's executed with minimal fuss, but it doesn't make it any less conventional, which takes some of the zest out of an otherwise fairly unique premise. Any time you can rope in Ben Kingsley for a supporting role where he plays a prickly bird expert, you have to make the most of it. But "A Birder's Guide To Everything" never veers too far away from a central path that's comfortable and more edgeless as the movie goes on, with Kingsley's harder-edged character kept to the side.
And yet, there is enough of a simple charm to "A Birder's Guide To Everything" that there are worse things you could do with your hour and a half. The lead teens in particular give the material a realness that may not have been there on the page, and the filmmakers know enough not push the quaint story beyond the safe parameters it operates in. But that safety also comes at the expense of creating something special, and that's the ultimate disappointment with "A Birder's Guide To Everything": it flies away from the nest, but never soars to new or intriguing heights. [C+]