This is a very tough and poetic coming-of-age film with phenomenal performances.

“Dear God, make me a bird so I can fly far, far away from here.” – Jenny, “Forrest Gump”

I've been catching up on some indie flicks I didn't have a chance to see in theaters because I live in Wichita, where we have a few solid arthouse venues but nothing like what folks in New York and L.A. have access to. I frequently rent DVDs from Family Video, which to my knowledge is the only rental store left in town (not counting the library and adult video stores). Every month the store publishes a “What's New" guide, which has an exhaustive list of new releases. January's guide is how I found out about “Little Birds”.

My interest was sparked immediately because the DVD box quoted enthusiastic reviews by two critics I respect: Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly and A.O. Scott of the The New York Times. Another big draw was Juno Temple, who stars in the film. She's probably best known for her role in “Atonement” and as Selina Kyle's friend in “The Dark Knight Rises”. She's also made careful choices outside the Hollywood realm, tackling meaty (and often extremely uninhibited) roles in independent gems like “Kaboom” and “Killer Joe”.

I'd hoped “Little Birds” would be another one of those, and I wasn't disappointed. This is a very tough and poetic coming-of-age film about two girls, Lily (Temple) and Alison (Kay Panabaker), who dream of escaping from the trailer park where they live near the Salton Sea. The early scenes in the trailer park are harshly realistic; Lily is suicidal, and one of her neighbors is a brain-damaged veteran rendered helpless by the Iraq War. Alison, a science nerd, will probably get out of this impoverished world one day, but Lily has more immediate plans of escape, suggesting they follow a group of skaters to L.A.

Unlike the violent rednecks in William Friedkin's “Killer Joe”, many of the adults in “Little Birds” are good role models. Some of them have familiar faces. Kate Bosworth is surprisingly believable and sympathetic as Bonnie, the damaged war veteran's faithful but emotionally depleted wife. Leslie Mann also does strong work as Lily's concerned mom. Best of all is Neal McDonough as Hogan, the adult Alison seems closest to, who uses a heartbreaking story about a drowned dog to illustrate how there are cruel and disappointing people no matter where you live.

The movie continues to ring true as we follow Lily and Alison from the Salton Sea to L.A. The director, Elgin James, is a former gang member, and his life experiences give this film an authenticity it might not otherwise have. He coaxes phenomenal performances out of Temple as a teenage hellcat and Panabaker as a Goody Two-Shoes; we've seen this cinematic pairing before, but the actresses make it seem fresh. James and cinematographer Reed Morano, who also shot “Frozen River”, capture moments of unexpected beauty in bleak California landscapes. “Little Birds” isn't exactly a lighthearted romp, but I think anyone who's ever been young and felt stuck in one place will respond to it.