Juno Temple’s Lily is a damaged creature trying to fly in Little Birds, a film of precious, romanticized misery and squalor. She’s introduced caressing her self-inflicted inner thigh cuts and submerging herself in bathtub water to let out a primal scream—an opening that sets the stage for her ensuing rage against the world, be it directed at her skanky mother, Margaret (Leslie Mann), or her dowdy goody-two-shoes best friend, Alison (Kay Panabaker). Lily is furious over her father’s suicide and her mother’s lousy parenting, but in writer-director Elgin James’s hands, those come across as merely tacked-on reasons to explain Lily’s more general adolescent discontent, which he idealizes through constant cinematographic fawning over Temple, her riot-grrl swagger and slow-burn brooding given loving treatment by the director’s (admittedly evocative, skillful) camerawork. Little Birds seeks sympathy for Lily and her barely defined malaise, yet that task is frustrated by the grating narcissism and nastiness of its protagonist, whose willful self-destructiveness comes to the fore through endless censures of her one and only friend Alison as a “baby,” and her eventual trip from her Salton Sea home to Los Angeles, with a reluctant Alison as her accomplice, to visit a homeless skater-slacker named Jesse (Kyle Gallner) who charmed her with a kiss.
Temple has attitude to burn, but it’s in service of material without a spark of genuine emotion; the film, replete with random indie-rock interludes, is content mucking around L.A. convenience-store parking lots and burned-out motels, where Lily is eventually convinced by Jesse’s friends, David (Chris Coy) and Louis (Carlos Pena), to act as bait in Internet scams in which they lure perverts to their squatter home in order to rob them. Lily’s desire for a happily ever after with Jesse and her more deviant urges intermingle in ways that the film isn’t interested in seriously investigating, and it sketches Alison almost as cursorily as it treats its adult characters, which include Lily’s aunt, Bonnie (Kate Bosworth), who, in a subplot of complete pointlessness, has a disabled Iraq vet husband, and Alison’s ranch-owner boss and friend, Hogan (Neal McDonough). Other than featuring teenie-bopper sensation Big Time Rush‘s Pena as a drinking-and-drugging delinquent, Little Birds is only notable for its clunky adherence to formula, which extends to a climax of predictable things-fall-apart melodrama and a finale note of unearned bittersweet hopefulness embellished with a song called “Little Birds”—and, also, for populating its coming-of-age narrative with mopers, malcontents, and miscreants who prove, all too well, Hogan’s belief that “People are dumb and cruel everywhere.”