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‘A Birder’s Guide to Everything’: Looking for ducks, finding friends

Michael Chen (from left) Katie Chang Alex Wolff Kodi Smit-McPhee plays students hunt for Labrador duck 'A Birder's Guide Everything.'

Michael Chen (from left), Katie Chang, Alex Wolff and Kodi Smit-McPhee plays students on the hunt for the Labrador duck in "A Birder's Guide to Everything." | SCREEN MEDIA FILMS

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David Portnoy Kodi Smit-McPhee

Timmy Barsky Alex Wolff

Ellen Reeves Katie Chang

Lawrence Konrad Ben Kingsley

Screen Media Films presents a film directed by Rob Meyer and written by Meyer and Luke Matheny. Running time: 86 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for language, sex and drug references, and brief partial nudity). Available on demand and opening Friday at the Wilmette Theatre.

Updated: April 22, 2014 6:07AM

It’s been well over a year since his mother died, but 15-year-old David Portnoy still hasn’t come to terms with the loss. He spends much of his time alone sketching birds or watching them through his ever-present binoculars. It’s a hobby he learned from his mother, a first-class birder, and he has no plans to give it up.

David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) also is having trouble connecting with his father (James Le Gros), who plans to remarry his dead wife’s nurse and expects his son to be best man. The teen is the centerpiece of director Rob Meyer’s sweet movie “A Birder’s Guide to Everything.” Meyer co-wrote the smart and appealing script with Luke Matheny, a 2010 Oscar-winner for the live-action short “God of Love.”

One day David spots what he thinks is a Labrador duck, a species thought to be extinct for more than 130 years. He brings the alleged discovery to his nerdy school club, the Young Birder’s Society, and convinces the other two members — his testosterone-fueled best-friend Timmy (Alex Wolff) and the by-the-book Peter (Michael Chen) — to embark on a road trip to follow the migrating bird in hopes of getting a photograph.

They seek the advice of ornithologist Lawrence Konrad (a wry Ben Kingsley), who offers tips about the life of a birder and lauds David’s mother as “an unsung hero of birding.” Another classmate Ellen Reeves (Winnetka native Katie Chang) who has access to a telephoto camera lens makes it a foursome. The trek through the serene, beautiful woods highlights the banter between the quartet as truths are unveiled and friendships strengthened.

The young actors shine revealing lights on their characters. The pale, gangly Smit-McPhee gives David an awkwardness that is endearing while also letting him grow into his own. Chang is charming as a teen looking for new friends who is not afraid to say what she feels. And Wolff, with his wandering rants, is the perfect comic foil.

“There’s nothing like the feeling of discovery,” Konrad, the elder bird expert, says at one point. In this amiable film that quip applies equally to the bird sightings and the teens who come of age during an adventure that strengthens the bonds of friendship and moves them in new directions.

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