Unhappy teenagers are each unhappy in their own way. But there is a movie template for the unhappiness of a certain kind of male of the species: that hypersensitive socially awkward outsider who sees right through the phoniness of the adult world and expresses himself with freakish maturity. Not wandering too far from the standard is 16-year-old James Whitman (Lucas Jade Zumann) the poet hero of this coming-of-age comedy with sad-serious bits. James has anxiety and depression, and he’s obsessed in a big way with his namesake, the poet Walt Whitman. The Dr Bird of the title is his imaginary psychiatrist, who he quirkily visualises as a pigeon (nicely voiced by Tom Wilkinson).
The movie follows James as he searches for his older sister, who mysteriously disappeared after a blazing row with their dad Carl (Jason Isaacs), an angry navy veteran. The family dysfunction stuff is sensitively handled with some originality; Carl is nicknamed “the brute” by his wife, a frustrated artist, and the kids, who hold him responsible as the fount of all unhappiness in the family. The truth turns out to be a little more nuanced.
Less interesting is the offbeat hunt for James’s sister, who he discovers has links with a cult. Cue a deeply unfunny Wes Anderson-ish sequence featuring David Arquette as a sleazy hippy cult leader surrounded by chanting acolytes. Director Yaniv Raz loads up on irritating stylistic touches: there’s a cowboy movie-style showdown James has with a kid who used to date his girlfriend Sophie (Taylor Russell); and the poster of Walt Whitman on his bedroom wall that comes alive. We don’t get to see so much as a scintilla of Sophie’s inner life. “I’m not some quirky character who exists to give you an epiphany,” she tells him. It’s a smart line but I’m not sure it’s true. Nor does the movie quite know how to handle James’s mental health: eccentric idiosyncrasy or Serious Issue?
• Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is released on 21 June on digital platforms.