James Whitman (Anne With an E’s Lucas Jade Zumann) would be the first person to admit that an imaginary pigeon is no substitute for a professional therapist. For now, though, Dr. Bird (voiced by Tom Wilkinson) is the best James can do. His parents (Lisa Edelstein and Jason Isaacs) won’t take him to a psychiatrist, his sister, Jorie (Lily Donoghue) is missing, and he’s been having crippling panic attacks at school.
What makes Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets different from other films about anxiety disorders is that James realizes something is wrong and asks for help. Sometimes speaking up is the hardest part but in Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets (and Kelly Oxford’s Pink Skies Ahead, which isn’t available in wide release yet but has been playing film festivals) it’s his parents who are in denial and prevent him from getting treatment.
Directed and written by Yaniv Raz and based on a novel of the same name by Evan Roskos, while the film identifies James as a “sad poet,” it’s his sister’s poetry that leads him to join forces with Sophie Seltzer (Waves’ Taylor Russell), whose very last name associates her with a soothing beverage. Sophie had been waiting for a poem from Jorie for the school’s literary magazine and while that doesn’t seem like a problem that should warrant much attention (surely another writer would’ve willing to fill that slot), it’s an excuse for them to work together and look for Jorie as a team.
Unlike James’ mood ring, which he ditches at one point, the entire film is basically a mood ring to James emotions. Every metaphor or simile comes out in the visual design of the movie. If a conversation reminds James of a noir film, then that’s what the movie looks like for that sequence. James describes his feelings for Sophie as “imagine butterflies drawn in by a flower so bright they forget how to fly” and suddenly his pupils are flowers and there are animated butterflies falling in his eyes. Imagination literally fuels every genre change, yet it all feels believable as a reflection of the high emotions of being a high schooler.
If the teenagers on Riverdale are mini adults, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets (minus some poor roofie jokes) is about highlighting the absurdities of high school yet also how seriously those absurdities are taken. From hipsters to croquet club champagne socials, everyone is trying to figure out who they are, by trying on different fronts and identities. As James, Zumann walks a delicate balance of not rejecting Dr. Bird’s advice or refusing to engage with these fantasies but also knowing that Dr. Bird isn’t real and keeping one foot in reality. It makes it so, as a viewer, you can both enjoy the whimsical-ness of the film while also realizing this isn’t the healthiest way to deal with anxiety.
While the ending is similar to 500 Days of Summer, the film doesn’t use the “manic pixie dream girl” trope and fans of the TV show, Wonderfalls, should check this movie out.
Dr. Bird’s Sad Advice for Poets is available on On-Demand starting January 12th.