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Movie Review

‘A Birder’s Guide to Everything’ is for the birders

From left: Michael Chen, Alex Wolff, Katie Chang, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

screen Media Films

From left: Michael Chen, Alex Wolff, Katie Chang, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

In the under-populated annals of birding movies, “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” counts as a rare sighting because it actually gets the birds right. It’s the humans who are hard to identify.

A coming-of-age comedy-drama about David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee of “Let Me In”), a shy teenage birding fanatic who might have spotted an extinct species, “Guide” is as sweet as pie. Also blandly written, acted, and directed, with strained attempts at raucous teen comedy and a general predictability in its story line. You’ve seen it all before, but maybe your young life-lister hasn’t, in which case it’s worth a look.

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David’s the sort of kid who whips out his binoculars not to spy on the teenage girl taking a shower next door but at the kestrel perching on her chimney. He’s still reeling from the death of his cancer-stricken mother (played by Tracy Bundy in handheld home-video flashbacks), who introduced David to the wonder of all things feathered and whose nurse (Daniela Lavender) is about to marry his dad (James LeGros). When he spots what could be a Labrador Duck — last seen in 1878 — the kid has to pick between confirming the sighting and serving as his father’s best man. It’s not much of a choice.

“A Birder’s Guide to Everything” balances nicely between portraying birders — do not call them “bird-watchers” — as impassioned nature lovers and self-selected social misfits. The script by Luke Matheny (a 2011 Oscar winner for his short “God of Love”) and director Rob Meyer, a Newton native, pokes gentle fun at the hero’s high school birding club — total membership: three — before sending them out into the field.

There, things become less inspired. The other travelers are David’s sex-obsessed best friend, Timmy (Alex Wolff, leaning hard on the obnoxiousness), nerdy Asian club president Peter (Michael Chen), and Ellen (Katie Chang), a photographer for the school paper who comes along for the ride and gently leads David out of his shell. The group crosses paths with two egotistical sport-birders trying to beat them to the duck and with a local guide and birding legend, Lawrence Konrad, played by none other than Sir Ben Kingsley.

Kingsley does not stoop to conquer. On the contrary, in his few scenes, he raises “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” to a pitch of wry self-effacement. Late in the going, Konrad cautions David, “I’m 63 years old and very much alone. I guide [expletives] for money. I have one leg and no driver’s license. Do not mistake me for a role model.”

“Guide” plays fair by the birds, too, unlike such recent misfires as “The Big Year” (2011). When you see a black-throated green warbler in this movie, you hear a black-throated green warbler on the soundtrack. Maybe that means nothing to you, but to a part-time birder who cringes every time a bald eagle in a movie is matched to the cry of a red-tailed hawk, it matters. And at its occasional best, “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” hints at the profound pleasure of standing very still and witnessing wonders the rest of the world passes by.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.
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