We’ve all felt lonely and isolated at one point or another; it’s a feeling that comes and goes. But for the six wayward protagonists of Wendy McColm’s dark comedy/drama Birds Without Feathers, it’s an inescapable part of their lives, a burden that’s hard to shake.
Our main character of sorts is Neil (played by McColm herself), a wannabe Instagram star who spends so much time snapping photos of herself and collecting followers like they were bottle caps, she never gets close to anyone; at least until she runs into Jo (Lenae Day), an old friend who is now a performance artist or actress of some sort, who is also desperate for attention.
Other characters orbit this pair: Sam (William Gabriel Grier), Neil’s boyfriend-then-ex-boyfriend, a struggling stand-up comic who can’t work up the nerve to actually get on a stage; Marty (Sara Estefanos), Sam’s new fling, a nurse at an old age home, who can barely bring herself to care about the elderly; Daniel (Cooper Osnowicz), a would-be motivational speaker who listens to his own tapes in order to function; and finally, Tom (Alexander Stasko), the foreign “cowboy” who sees Jeff Goldblum as his biggest role model (and who doesn’t?).
There are some darkly amusing moments here, including one really strange sex scene, but McColm tones down an expected quirkiness and goes for a more melancholy tone. She’s not interested in making goofs out of her characters, the sort who would make it easy to point and giggle, instead trying to affectionately find their human side. This is a good thing, because in another director's hands, people this self-absorbed would be insufferable.
Instead, McColm makes some valid points about human connection. All these characters have one thing in common: they feel lonely, lacking self-worth, wanting to matter. And they all hide behind something. Tom, for example, relates to everything in terms of movies (a sly dig at obsessive film buffs who prefer movies to social interaction... and they‘re out there); Neil is living via a phone screen, with many followers but no friends; and so on. Ironically, in the Internet age, people are connected at all times but more isolated than ever; a point which has been brought up in media many times but is still valid.
It's not all morose sadness though; there’s enough quirk here to offset the fact that the film is dealing with serious subject matter, and while the characters never cross the line into absolute oddballs, they’re eccentric enough that you’re never not watching a comedy (an extended bit with “Jeff Goldbloom” is awkward, goofy and sad, all at once). McColm doesn’t really give us a resolution, leaving her characters contemplating their situation and wondering where to go from there.
In its own, low-key, low-budget way, Birds Without Feathers is very perceptive about modern human interaction; there’s a universal truth behind its eccentricities that makes it a compelling watch, even if its six characters aren’t the nicest of people. It’s not just “indie quirk” for quirk’s sake; McColm has something to say, and she says it clearly.
Birds Without Feathers is showing at Slamdance on Tuesday 23 January at 2:45pm in the Ballroom.