“Little Wing,” the Portland-Filmed Movie About Racing Pigeons, Never Takes Flight

The film stars Brian Cox and is based on an article by former WW contributor Susan Orlean.

Little Wing (Courtesy of IMDB)

It’s a sad truth—only a small percentage of teenagers in movies respond to traditional therapy. Luckily, there are far better outcomes when wayward youth are paired with animals (Free Willy and Lean on Pete for a couple of Oregon-made examples) or gruff old men (Finding Forrester).

The Portland-shot and -set Little Wing attempts a hybrid approach to this inspirational blueprint. Alienated eighth grader Kaitlyn (Brooklynn Prince) stumbles into her sense of purpose through pigeon racing and the mentorship of a grouchy bird expert (Brian Cox) from whom she tries to steal a prized flyer.

It’s a heist inspired by trauma. Kaitlyn’s father recently left the family, saddling them with mortgage debt. Her mother, played by Yellowstone’s Kelly Reilly, can’t pick up any more shifts as a Portland police detective (a job used only to heighten the mother’s suspicion of her daughter’s antics).

By pure coincidence, Kaitlyn hears about Jaan (Cox), a world-class pigeon racer whose prized bird, “The Granger,” is rumored to be the fastest in North America and worth more than $100,000. A plan hatches: break into Jaan’s rooftop pigeon loft, just kitty-corner from downtown Portland’s First Baptist Church, plop The Granger into a pillowcase and sell him for the mortgage money.

This setup unfolds with the requisite charm. Prince, who broke out five years ago in The Florida Project, credibly plays an eighth grader whose recently broken home has sizzled her attitude. Her plaid Catholic school tie hangs slack around her neck to signal distaste for authority, and her chemistry with best friend Adam (Che Tafari) is spiked with dry self-awareness.

“I’m in a period of emotional upheaval,” she tells him, harmonizing with the movie’s most heightened visual moments, like Kat sacrificing herself in a crucifixion pose during gym-class dodgeball and smashing the yard sign of the realtor who wants to sell her family home.

That attitude is, paradoxically, both the movie’s most appealing attribute and the problem the script is trying to solve. Which was, after all, is a core theme from the 2006 New Yorker article, written by Orchid Thief author and former WW contributor Susan Orlean, on which the film is based.

Unfortunately, director Dean Israelite (Power Rangers, Project Almanac) and writer John Gatins (who specializes in sports melodramas like Hardball, Real Steel and Coach Carter) don’t thread their chosen needle between the theme-heavy character study and the YA crowd pleaser.

Most surprisingly, Little Wing’s ace in the hole is miscast. If you are, say, Brian Cox’s agent or someone who clocks him only as a venerated elder statesman of acting who lends his inimitable voice to McDonald’s commercials, it makes sense that Cox should try his version of the gruff geriatric who sets right an emotionally broken mentee a half-century his junior (see: Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, Morgan Freeman in A Good Person, or Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople).

But what of Cox’s particular strengths? His first major film role was Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter (1986), a master class in reptile blood. And his fame exploded playing a right-wing media patriarch on Succession who routinely screamed “FUCK OFF!” at his spoiled children—at a volume synonymous with disownment.

In other words, Cox is simply too scary and, later, too passive in Little Wing. He doesn’t swear at Kaitlyn, but “you’re a surly little cretin!” is certainly a line that exemplifies the first problem. When the turn toward unlikely friendship comes, he struggles to lock those icy blue eyes on Kaitlyn in a connective or convincing way.

While Brooklyn Prince gave a brilliantly lifelike performance in The Florida Project, it’s hard to gauge her growth as an actor here. Her big moments are forced school monologues about Kathleen Hanna and whiplash-inducing narration. “My body really changed,” she interrupts the movie at one point before going shopping for bras with her mom (that scene at least ends with a nice family ice cream sit-down at Director Park).

For a Portland-set movie in the streaming era, granted, Little Wing is far more locally embedded than To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and thankfully more in the vein of Timmy Failure (another Oregon kid-animal picture, that one featuring an imaginary polar bear). Israelite has genuine fun above the Willamette, capturing ‘80s kids-on-bikes adventure energy when Adam and Kaitlyn tear westward over the Steel Bridge to steal The Granger after dark (later, a stand-off with Russian pigeon collectors on the Hawthorne Bridge is modeled on a spy exchange, all while perturbed cyclists barely avoid hitting them).

Those are well-staged, creative moments in a movie obsessed with bringing its story home to roost yet sadly sputtering through the journey. There’s no reason we can’t try this formula again, though. Maybe Nick Nolte and Portland’s famous crows next time?

SEE IT: Little Wing, rated PG-13, streams on Paramount+.

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