Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, directed by Yaniv Raz, is based on a 2013 book of the same name by Evan Roskos. It follows 16-year-old James Whitman (Lucas Jade Zumann) as he struggles to navigate his day-to-day life plagued by, at times, crippling anxiety and depression. The first thing James sees every morning when he wakes up is a poster on his wall of Walt Whitman, to whom James likens himself. To try to deal with his emotions and life events, James has therapy sessions with Dr. Bird—an imaginary pigeon perched on the back of a therapist’s chair. A tendency to splice the imaginary or fantastical in with reality is a recurring theme in James’s life, enhanced with bursts of classical music.
James is hyper-sensitive to the world around him, overanalysing and overthinking while trying to cope with confusion, dysfunction and pressure. While all teenagers struggle with growing up and learning how to navigate the bad as well as the good, James is particularly stressed because of his untreated anxiety and depression. His home life is unstable: his sister, Jorie (Lily Donoghue), has disappeared; his father (Jason Isaacs) is abusive and is referred to by his mother and by James as “The Brute”; and his mother (Lisa Edelstein) is rarely anything other than depressive and despondent.
The film follows James as he and his love interest, Sophie (Taylor Russell), embark on something of a quest uncover what happened to Jorie. As they drive around in a classic red Mercedes convertible trying to solve the puzzle, there are some light-hearted and sweet, as well as difficult moments, as well as some odd or forced or confusing moments along the way; Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets does not seem to know if it wants to be regarded as a whimsical or fantastical experience, or a more serious look at a teenager’s mental health difficulties, but it does not fully work trying to be both.
A running time of one hour and 50 minutes is a long time to capture and keep an audience’s attention, and Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets does not quite accomplish this task. The lead actors give solid performances and the audience empathizes with James’s need for recognition from his parents that he is not well and needs psychotherapy. There are good lessons in the film about the importance of taking care of one’s mental health and in open communication within families and relationships. However, some fumbles detract from the theme of James requiring therapy, such as a visit to a cult with bizarre inappropriate sexual suggestions that are shrugged off and not mentioned again. The discovery of what happened to Jorie feels rushed and a secondary explanation later seemed hastily written in; indeed, the final portion of the film as whole feels unfortunately rushed.
All-in-all, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is to be commended for its performances and its messaging on how vital mental health is and how strongly events at home affect teenagers and children. The film could have done with some extra editing and tighter storyline, which, combined, would have resulted in a sharper and more cohesive narrative and cinematic experience.
Comedy, Drama | USA, 2021 | 21st June 2021 (UK) | Digital HD | 101 Films | Dir.Yaniv Raz | Lucas Jade Zumann, Taylor Russell, David Arquette, Tom Wilkinson, Jason Isaacs, Lisa Edelstein