Music: Don Campbell & Al Lee Cinematography: Randall S. Timmerman
Starring: Ian Anderson-Priddy, Andrew Ox, Don Adler and Lorraine Bahr
Kicking Bird is writer-director Kelley Baker’s third film. Unlike some of the more polished productions coming out of the Rose City, Baker’s films harken back to the indie features of the seventies that contain more grit than glamor. Unfortunately the first thing one notices when viewing Baker’s film is that the digital videotape robs the story of the warmth of film. It’s probably something that could have been corrected in post, or perhaps wouldn’t have happened with a different camera, or it could have been the best he could do at the time with the limited budget he had, all forgivable sins. Unfortunately it does nothing to ameliorate the deficiencies of the visuals, and for the most part it has the look of a high school media class production. In some ways, however, it’s appropriate considering that high school is the subject of the film. The opening shot of a brick schoolhouse is accompanied by a ringing bell, and followed by Ian Anderson-Priddy racing out of the building and down the street and a punk rock song pushed to the front in the soundtrack. Soon his reason for running becomes clear as a shot from the front shows him being chased by a bunch of other boys. Sound quality is an issue as well as the visuals, when one of the boys is barely audible on the soundtrack.
Anderson-Priddy makes it into his house just ahead of the others, and immediately his grandfather, Danny Bruno, yells at him to bring him a beer. Bruno chews the scenery in his first scene, a poor man’s Bill Paxton, and it’s difficult to discern whether he’s going for laughs or not. After a brief scene in the boy’s bedroom, the scene switches to coach Don Adler at school that afternoon, finishing cross-country practice and then detention. At the end of his day he is ridiculed by some acquaintances for choosing a career as a teacher. Andrew Ox, a goth friend of Anderson-Priddy’s stays the night, and they eat dinner in front of the television with his grandparents. All the acting to this point, with the exception of grandmother Lorraine Bahr, is far too exaggerated for the medium, as if all of them had come from a stage production and were unable to adapt their acting to film. What comes out about the young man in the film is that he’s very intelligent but doesn’t apply himself in class, his father has disappeared and his mother is in prison. The title of the film comes from the bullies calling him “bird” as a diminutive of jailbird. Why Baker chose kicking as the adjective instead of running remains a mystery. When Adler sees Anderson-Priddy being chased by his star--and never close to being caught--he calls off the bullies and tries to recruit him for his team, something on the order of McFarland, USA from ten years later.
Once the film finally settles in after twenty minutes or so, it’s almost possible to forget about the deficiencies of the production and focus on the story as it unfolds. Anderson-Priddy goes with his grandparents to visit his mother in prison and has a teenage meltdown, but Bahr has a really nice moment calming him down and getting him back in the room. Teen delinquencies follow, stealing beer from a convenience store and pouring sugar in the gas tank of car of Ox’s mother’s new boyfriend. But nothing really comes of these events and the viewer gets the strong impression of having seen it all before. Baker definitely has a confident visual style, which makes one wish even more that he had done something to fix the starkness of the videotape because it causes a lot of the shot selections to make it look like a television show rather than a feature film. As with most independent filmmakers, the writing lags well behind the visuals. For the first forty-five minutes the screenplay can’t decide if the boy’s missing father or joining the cross-country team is going to be the main thrust of the plot. As a result, the episodes of delinquency drag on long after the audience gets the point, which dilutes what could have been an interesting story if handled differently.
At the end of the day the success of a film usually comes down to the acting, and there just isn’t a lot to say on that score. Other than a nice performance by Lorraine Bahr, the rest of the acting was average at best. But it also must be said that the screenplay didn’t help the actors either. In trying to write what Baker clearly feels is realistic dialogue, it wound up being rather pedestrian instead. Anderson-Priddy probably would have come off better had his character not been so clichéd, but there’s really nothing original there. Baker also tries for something like a Karate Kid ending, but by that point it’s far too little and much too late. Worse than that, however, all of the moral high ground that Anderson-Priddy had gained throughout the film is completely thrown away when he acts every bit as unprincipled as the rest of the adult cast in the film. For this viewer it destroyed everything it seemed the film had been building toward. It must be said that any independent film production is a labor of love, and the time, effort, and money that go into it are worthy of respect. Baker certainly must get credit for that, but his artistic choices from the music to the lack of post-production--whether forced upon him by a paucity of funds or not--are questionable. As a result, Kicking Bird remains a flawed film.