Yaniv Raz’s adaption of Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets shows how it was a book made for the big screen. This offbeat look at mental health in teenagers occasionally stumbles but is able to stay on its feet to be an entertaining film.
Enter the whimsical world of James Whitman (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 16-year-old boy obsessed with poet Walt Whitman, who’s reeling from his beloved sister Jorie (Lily Donoghue) and struggling with anxiety and depression. But his dysfunctional parents: “The Brute” father (Jason Isaacs) and careworn mother (Lisa Edelstein) refuse to confront the issues, so there’s no one else to turn to except Dr Bird (voiced by Tom Wilkinson), a talking pigeon-cum-therapist.
At its core, Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is a film about the acceptance of mental illness wrapped up in a beautiful visual feast. The at-times delicate nature when our characters have no choice but, to be frank with one another are powerful and effective. Each character has something that they are harbouring mental, yet for all of that, this isn’t a film explicitly about mental health. Instead, it is about a boy coming of age and understanding how life may not be as simple as he expected. This more nuanced approach allows the film to take some fresh moments that work very well. Montages positively glow with their enthusiasm.
While James and Sophie’s journey to find Jorie reels you in and is full of sweet and entertaining moments, yet there are bad road bumps. When we reach David Arquette’s cult, the film positively halts until the final moments of the sequence, where some comedy seeps back into the picture. These missteps jolt the fantastic rhythm the film had going for it. However, it is only for a moment, and the cinematic influences are rife throughout the film, and if you give it multiple viewings, there is a fun game to be had at guessing which moment comes from where.
The narrative of James mental health struggles sways between the serious moments and the light, almost jovial. Unfortunately, this mesh never really works as well as intended, which is a shame as when it takes those moments more seriously, Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets works tremendously well. Discussions with his father about mental illness and when James has a spiral makes the film work. Yet those freehand moments hurt the film tremendously as if the filmmakers wanted to alleviate some of the stresses the same way they do with James and Sophie’s budding relationship. It is another slight misstep, but not one that completely detours us from the film’s main point.
Where Yaniv Raz’s film excels is in his fresh take on all of this. We could have gone down the over the top route quite easily, yet he can rein himself in enough not to lose his audience. For the most part, the offbeat nature works, and as previously said, while at times it doesn’t 100% convinces, we at least see the well-intentioned meaning behind some of the decisions. Raz was also wise to keep the more adult themes that come across in Dr Birds Advice for Sad Poets as they allow the film to feel more authentic to modern 16-year-olds.
Lucas Jade Zumann is fantastic here, like the film itself. If he becomes too broad a character, then we lose all of what makes it work. In Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, you buy into his fears, and he becomes utterly relatable. His actions make sense throughout, and the conviction he gives the role should be applauded. Equally, Taylor Russell plays her part well and doesn’t simply become the common trope to our protagonist. While it would have helped the film to delve a little more into her character. In the end, she is used as a key to show James that not everything is as black and white as he would expect and that actions do have consequences.
Jason Isaacs and Lisa Edelstein do some great work here as well as the strained parents. Both have their demons and methods of handling their stresses and emotions, which have affected their son unbeknownst to them. At times, both are unwilling to accept James’s issues, which leads him to resort to talking to the imaginary pigeon Mr Bird.
At times Dr Bird’s Advice For Sad Poets has you thinking of other films of its ilk. Yet behind it all, there is more than enough for it to stand out on its own. This is a wonderfully fresh film that takes the influences and runs with them. A film that will sneak under the radar but is well worth the watch.
Dr Bird’s Advice For Sad Poets is out now on digital.
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