It’s been a long time since I’ve come into any piece of entertainment completely unspoiled. Even in the case of shows that deliberately keep a low profile, I’ve usually seen something to judge by. The only way for me to come in completely fresh and unawares is to have never heard of the subject before.
In the case of Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, that’s exactly what happened. For funsies, I decided not to look into it at all before I hit Play. And let me just say, boy, that was a choice. Because Birdboy is a heck of a thing to approach with no forewarning. That said, I’m actually glad I did, because it meant I was bowled over with just how dark the movie was willing to go at every new twist and turn.
Originally titled Psychonauts—no relation to the Double Fine game of the same title—Birdboy is an adaptation of a comic book by the film’s co-director, Alberto Vázquez. The story takes place on a secluded island inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, all living at various rungs of society after a devastating nuclear explosion. Our protagonist, a teenage mouse named Dinky, hates her family and the island and wants out. I really couldn’t blame her—she spends her first full scene of the movie being told she’s making the Baby Jesus cry blood and that the household “gimp-dog” is less of a disappointment than she is.
Stick with me. Jonathan the Gimp-Dog is the shallow end of this pool.
Outside her family, and much loved by Dinky, is title character Birdboy—a cute little cross between a baby chick and Slenderman. Birdboy is mostly non-verbal, takes care of the island’s birds, and is on a ton of drugs to hold the demon living inside him at bay. He’s also running from the island’s cops because, well, drugs.
The deeper you wander into this movie, the stranger it gets. And “wander” does feel like an apt description: we jump from Dinky’s story to Birdboy’s, then to the fisherman pig Zacharias as he decides whether or not to leave home and start over. A secondary story follows a few of the “Forgotten Children” as they scour junkyards for copper and engage in family-wide turf wars. Some moments are gentle, while others—like Birdboy’s inner demons literally ripping him apart—push into increasingly darker waters.
At first, I tried my hardest to follow the story and the message. Because there clearly was a message. This whole thing had to be a major metaphor for something, right? With a ravaged society and children on drugs to suppress inner turmoil, there was a statement being made. Trying to follow it and tease it out of the imagery gave me a headache.
So I gave up and just let the movie happen to me. And when I started doing that, it was a whole other experience.
The animation is rough and sketchy—not subpar, but kinetic and experimental. It’s almost dreamlike in its flow, with inanimate objects revealing themselves to be sentient characters mid-scene. Traumas and addictions manifest as red and black monsters: demon birds for Birdboy, tiny rabbits for the intrusive thoughts of Dinky’s friend Sandra, and an abusive black widow who takes up residence inside Zacharias’s mother. It’s a handy color code for the dark things of the world and our minds, and sometimes the words of those monsters hit oddly close to home.
All told, this is largely a very dismal-feeling movie. Trust shifts and breaks, monsters are hiding everywhere, and even the people characters believe they can trust won’t be there forever. There is a body count. There’s blood. There’s picking up and moving on after the blood is shed.
But there’s also a thread of hope that courses through the whole film. Birdboy is, despite his mysterious background and terrible experiences, strangely childlike and innocent. He wants to help the people around him, and he has a greater capacity to do that than any other character we meet. Who or what he truly is, we never find out. But his mere presence, even at the worst of times, is hopeful.
Birdboy is a coming-of-age story, a story of teenagers wanting to escape from the horrors of the world in any way possible. What it means, though, will differ depending on the viewer. It’s an emotional Rorschach test, likely to hit you differently depending both on who you are and when you watch it. I know what it meant to me personally, as concerns things I’ve been through in my own life. And despite what a rough watch it was emotionally, it left me with a desire to keep going even when met with insurmountable odds.
If Birdboy has an overall message, perhaps it’s that we can’t choose how we escape the things that haunt us. We can decide we want to, need to, and are ready to, but what we believe will fix everything may not in fact be the final solution. The eventual “way out” may be long and convoluted, and not as quick or simple as we’d prefer. But there is one, provided we’re ready to accept it when we see it.