Review: Quirky dramady 'Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets' offers unique look at mental illness
Courtesy of Krete Films
Part “The Perks of Being A Wallflower” and “Words on Bathroom Walls,” the quirky teenager dramady “Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets” tackles mental illness with spunky visual cues. “Dr. Bird” follows 16-year-old literature aficionado James Whitman (Lucas Jade Zumann) who spends his days inner monologuing, trying to process his thoughts and relay them to an imaginary pigeon (voiced by Tom Wilkinson) stooped on his chair. He knows professional help is the solution, but his father Carl (Jason Issacs) – nicknamed “the Brute” – refuses to accept his son is sick. His tells James to swallow his thoughts and bury negativity deep down where nobody can find it.
Coping with an overwhelming anxiety disorder, James starts plotting a rescue mission to track his 17-year-old sister Jorie (Lily Donoghue) who disappeared after Dad kicked her out. The film is predominantly told from James point of view, complete with hilarious storybook flashbacks about his parents tumtulous marriage and how their upstart sushi business failed because folks don’t want a Caucasian white male giving them raw fish.
Like any normal dramady set in high school, there’s romance and James has a major crush on Sophie (the always welcome Taylor Russell who was last seen in the aforementioned “Words on Bathroom Walls”) but he’s never gotten the nerve to strike up a conversation.
But as luck would have it, Sophie – who runs the school’s literary magazine – approaches James to help locate a poem Jorie was to provide for an upcoming issue. He agrees, seeing it as an excuse to expedite his previous quest to locate the long-lost big sis, and to get closer with Sophie. Their journey leads them to some interesting characters, including a cultist leader played with enthusiastic glee by David Arquette and the big city. The pair grow closer along the way, offering a reprieve in James’ chaotic life, and its presentation is innocent enough to forgive obvious melodramatic cliches prevalent in all teenage coming-of-age tales. Nobody is asking for originality, but if we believe the central relationship, then nothing else matters, and Russell and Zumann are a delight to watch explore their feelings for each other.
Written and directed by Yaniv Raz and adapted from the novel of the same name by Evan Rosko, “Sad Poets” showcases an immersive visual feat, keenly demonstrating James’ feelings surrounding his diagnosis. Of course, it would be tough to engage with the narrative if Zumann didn’t hone James in an approachable, relatable state of mind. His co-stars, including Isaac, and Lisa Edelstein as the omniscient mother, are equally engaging.
Throughout “Sad Poets,” as James continues his trek for answers, new discoveries come to light and the characters in his own world start to alter. What we might know of the Brute at the beginning of the story changes in James’ perspective towards the end (and Dr. Bird is there for all of it). But most importantly, he comes to terms with his illness and recognizes steps that could help in the future. The ending doesn’t land perfectly, though it's suitable and unpredictable enough to hit the affectionate note Raz resolves for, maintaining a delicate balance of empathy while staying true to itself and the material.
DR. BIRD'S ADVICE FOR SAD POETS is now available via digital and On Demand services