The Big Year
Directed by David Frankel
Written by Howard Franklin
The Big Year takes place in the world of birding, where obsessive fans of feathered friends spend their time watching and following birds. They learn the songs, know the species, and some can even imitate their favorite birds. And there is no greater glory in the world of birding than the Big Year, where a birder spends an entire year seeing as many bird species as possible.
Now, as a biologist, I’ve meet birders and can understand where they’re coming from, even if I have no desire to trek through swamps and snow to spot rare birds with pink feet. Myself, I’m perfectly fascinated by even the most common birds. Crows, starlings, mourning doves, all are cool in my book. Granted, the herons, egrets, and hawks I spy on the drive home are awesome as well. Maybe I am a secret birder…
The Big Year is ultimately about obsession. About a hobby, about love, about doing what you love but also living your life. It’s based on Mark Obmascik’s book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession, which I haven’t read. But I did get free tickets to an advanced screening, so once again, Tars sells out!
Brad Harris is ostensibly the main character, but in reality there are three main characters, three story arcs, three paths. All of the three main characters want to be the best, to win. but not all of them will win. Only one can be the best. And sometimes, the quest is only the beginning.
Most of the film is characters crisscross the country chasing after rare bird sightings, following the migration patterns, going on sighting tours. The three characters continue to run into each other, Brad and Stu become friends, while Kenny Bostick is infamous in birding circles, where characters mutter his last name or stand in awe of him.
One of the unwritten rules of the Big Year is you don’t tell people you are doing a Big Year. Part of the fun is guessing who is your competitors, who continually shows up for all the trips to obscure places at obscure times. Who is a competitor, and who is just a bird nerd?
The film paints Kenny Bostick as the villain, but he isn’t a two-dimensional villain. He’s simply a man obsessed to the point where he’ll let his world crumble around him as long as he’s watching birds. It’s his element, he isn’t alive if he isn’t on a quest to see birds. He’s also honorable. In birding, you can score the bird if you only identify its call, you don’t need to see it. But Bostick must be 100% positive he’s spotted the bird, and won’t just mark one because he may have heard a call.
All three characters seem like people you would actually meet. None are presented as infallible. There are hopes, dreams, tragedy, disappointment, scheming, backfiring, misunderstandings, guilt. And connections. The birds connect the birders. The many tiny events, spotting the birds, even if it is for a fleeting moment. Hundreds of moments throughout the year.
I fear The Big Year will fail to find an audience. Largely due to the non-traditional narrative, which apes real life. It isn’t a big wacky comedy, and is not the type of film Jack Black is famous for. One of the film’s attempts to be wacky (a honeymooning couple in Alaska where the wife gets more than she bargained for) falls flat, the viewer not knowing the characters enough to care about their predicament. The Big Year a diary of the year, with various episodes/entries. A road trip without a real destination, because the destinations are hidden throughout the journey. The quirkiness seems like a Wes Anderson film, Owen Wilson punching that feeling to a deeper imprint. To expand on the quirkiness, there are visual sequences that seem like the type you would need to be quirky. It has some of the slow scenes set to alternative music as characters travel around and do things while graphics go all interactive on us that we expect. The opening sequence explaining the Big Year is also well done.
I did like the film, and feel it will gain a small audience later in life on DVD, but probably not hit movie numbers. The ending goes in a direction I wasn’t sure it would take, but feels like what a real ending in real life would have been. And the characters who live with the ramifications of it. It almost made me want to take up birding. But then, I have a bajillion hobbies already. And you can do your own version of birding by spotting all the famous people in minor roles. This film is a gold mine! Be sure to take detailed notes of their plumage and calls.
Rated 7/10 (Takahe, Iiwi, Green Bee Eater, Seychelles Magpie Robin, Puaiohi, Hawaiian Stilt, Mauritius Fody)
Please give feedback below!