Though not deliberately a mystery, insomuch as the truth isn't overtly obfuscated as a crutch for (melo)dramatic reveal, much of Little Bird's intensity and power stems from the masked or unspoken truths that, while obvious, remain off camera. 10-year-old Jojo (Rick Lens) spends most of his time alone, clumsily attempting to maintain domestic consistency to please his mercurial, oft-working father Ronald (Loek Peters).
With a bluish-grey palette and a realist aesthetic, Boudewijn Koole's coming-of-age drama—incidentally, The Netherlands' submission for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—follows Jojo through his day, often having extended phone conversations with his absent mother about how well he is getting along with his father, while cleaning up spaghetti noodles and sauce of the floor and walls that were presumably tossed about violently the night before. We're left out of specificities like potential child abuse, or the true nature of his mother's absence, forced to focus instead on the experience or projected reality of our young, compulsive liar of a protagonist.
It's this unsettling sense of masked tragedy and repressed abuse that heightens the central relationship between Jojo and an injured, or rejected, baby jackdaw he finds. His father points out that birds raised by humans always die, being unable to identify risk or threats in the natural world, yet Jojo holds his new companion close, hoping to provide the love and care for this bird that he is denied.
Despite being bogged down by some overly twee soundtrack decisions in the third act of the film when all of the secrets are revealed, the quiet simplicity and thoughtful handling of a deeply angry but repressed child proves quite astute and powerful. Though we're aware that his animal friendship is destined for tragedy, acknowledging that this relationship is merely a diversionary tactic from coping with the reality present, there is a sense of identification maintained, wherein we—much like our deluded protagonist—want something impossible to magically work out.
But unfortunately, reality is far less appealing than ideals, which is in itself the true coming-of-age lesson in this deceptively simple story of childhood disappointment and maturity.
Little Bird screens initially on Friday November 9th, 2012 at 7pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. There will also be a second screening at Workman Arts on Saturday November 17th at 11am. (Waterland Film)