Sexual conquest is the bread and butter of so many teen comedies, but rarely does it form the subtext of a highly specific topic like birdwatching as it does in Rob Meyer’s A Birder’s Guide to Everything, which follows a nerdy group of friends as they navigate both their carnal neuroses and the Connecticut woods in search of an extremely rare (and possibly extinct) bird. The film exudes familiarity in its narrative structure and tone of rampant moralization, which is typical to so many coming-of-age stories, even exhibiting a visual style that suggests a ’90s made-for-television production. But it nonetheless exhibits strong character interplay and resides in an unconventional milieu, in effect turning rote material into something that feels decidedly eccentric.
David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a high school sophomore whose late mother showed him the virtues of birdwatching—err, birding, as the film reminds us more than once. His father, Donald (James LeGros), has put the tragedy behind him and is set to remarry, but David is still grieving. His relationship with his father strained, the boy spends most of his time with his friends and fellow birders Peter (Michael Chen) and girl-crazy Timmy (Alex Wolff). When he spots what he believes to be an extinct duck, his birding hero (a scene-stealing Ben Kingsley) urges him and his friends to track it down. And with the help of photo expert Ellen (Katie Chang), they head north in hopes of a sighting, putting their friendships and personal hang-ups on the line.
Rather than dictate the narrative, the birding milieu provides a thematic backdrop for what’s essentially a story about sexual anxiety. In one scene, David’s discomfort around the female body is evident in the way he recoils in abhorrence when his soon-to-be stepmom’s right boob accidently pops out of her bathrobe, and later, during a night in the woods, he calmly alerts Katie, on whom he’s crushing, that he can see her peeing after she’s already pulled down her shorts and underwear. But if these neurotic responses are rooted in the absence caused by his mother’s death, it’s something the film doesn’t elaborate on. Mostly, sex takes on a mystic air as each member of the group admits to not having even kissed another person let alone slept with anyone. The filmmakers never fully explicate the interrelationship of sexual incertitude and sighting a rare bird, but the connection somehow makes sense, mostly because you believe characters as invested in birding as these would have little room for anything else.
These characters may sound one-dimensionally nebbish, but they’re charming in their noble devotion to both their friendships and birding. And the performances, while scarcely transcendent, are believable in their integrity, as the actors do not condescend to the characters’ behaviors and interests; this could also be said for the film, devoted as it is to the underdog’s spirit, even if it’s a little too keen to give everyone a happily ever after by the end. That tidy resolution is telegraphed from the outset, but the energetic, never-mocking tone of all involved allows the film to stake its place alongside some of the genre’s stronger and more enduring touchstones. Plus, there’s one thing it has that the others do not: By virtue of it being the first of its kind, A Birder’s Guide to Everything is irrefutably the best film about sexually frustrated birders ever made.