An alienated-teen movie that surfs along on the whims and casual cruelties of its central character runs a risk: It can wind up as random and undisciplined as she is. Instead, Little Birds is a touching and distinctive achievement. It’s not just another movie myth of delinquency-as-rebellion. It gets at the nitty-gritty of adolescent aimlessness and despair, and the way that certain kids act that out. The kid, in this case, is Lily, who lives in a California trailer park along the dirty white shores of the Salton Sea. She’s played by Juno Temple, who is quite petite, with a cascade of frizzy-wavy hair and a face that always looks as if it’s about to burst into tears. Even when she smiles, there’s a deliquescent sadness to her, but as Lily, she’s also feisty as hell, like Lisbeth Salander as a tough beach chick in cutoffs.
Restless and bored, Lily can’t stand her life, and so, dragging along her only friend, the much more cautious and rational Alison (Kay Panabaker), she heads to L.A. to hook up with a skate-punk drifter. The scenes with the street kids whom Lily is drawn to (even when they turn violent) have the blitzed junior nihilism of such end-of-the-’70s youth classics as Over the Edge and Foxes. In a film like this one, a self-destructive live wire like Lily must hit bottom before she can feel better. There’s a moralistic structure there, but the film leaves Lily in a place that’s scarcely more reassuring than the one she first abandoned. That’s what makes Little Birds not just a lesson but, in its rambling way, an organic journey. B+