By Lindsey Bahr
February 05, 2014 at 06:00 PM EST

A Birder's Guide to Everything

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At only 17, Kodi Smit-McPhee is probably best known for starring in somewhat macabre projects — from Let Me In to The Road, his precocious darkness and intense gaze seem to always be on display. Even ParaNorman‘s Norman Babcock was a bit of an outcast. Even though A Birder’s Guide to Everything isn’t exactly devoid of difficult emotional truths (and OK, OK, a gawky high school kid obsessed with birding might still fit into “charmingly misunderstood outcast” territory), Smit-McPhee was thrilled to finally get to work with actors his own age.

“I was into the nostalgia of having a group again — a kid group like Goonies, Stand by Me, going on an adventure,” said Smit-McPhee. He’d never seen the River Phoenix coming-of-age pic till his co-star Alex Wolff introduced him to it during filming. Viewings quickly became an on-set ritual. “We used to go to each other’s rooms and watch the movie all the time. It was really fun,” he said.

Smit-McPhee didn’t borrow too heavily from the ’80s classics, though. It was more a way to bond with his cast. “I think it’s always good to start something new. To start a new nostalgia,” he said.

In the film — the narrative feature debut of director Rob Meyer — Smit-McPhee’s 15-year-old David Portnoy believes he’s spotted an extinct species of bird and “borrows” a car to go off on an adventure to find it with some friends from the Young Birders Society in tow. This of course is on the eve of his dad’s second marriage. “We jump in on his life when there’s been a little bit of drama. [David] kind of just breaks away and does something for himself for once,” he said.

Eventually the kids, accompanied by a photographer classmate (The Bling Ring‘s Katie Chang), meet up with a birding expert, played by Sir Ben Kinglsey, who offers the somewhat lost kids some advice and perspective.

After premiering at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, A Birder’s Guide was slapped with an R rating for “some language and crude references.” Meyer and his co-writer (Oscar-winner Luke Matheny) placed an immediate appeal to the MPAA and actually won, lowering the rating to a more inclusive and genre appropriate PG-13.

“I didn’t even know that happened,” Smit-McPhee laughed. “Usually every movie I do goes straight to R! But I’m happy about that. The audience that we aimed it at will finally get to see it.”

EW can exclusively reveal that A Birder’s Guide to Everything hits VOD on March 11 and opens in select theaters on March 21.

A Birder's Guide to Everything

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