Adapted from an acclaimed novel by Chris Feddi and primed with a diverse soundtrack by such achingly cool indie luminaries as Crystal Castles, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and The Do, “Pelican Blood” has so much quirkiness to spare it could open a quirky quirk-store and sell quirkiness at discount prices to the chronically quirkless. I’ve not read the novel on which Cris Cole (currently enjoying great notices for his “Mad Dogs” TV series) has based his screenplay, but I’ll wager this is the perfect example of what happens when you strip away the stylistic embellishments of an original text and leave simply the fundamentals of a plot that then begins to look rather contrived and unlikely when exposed to the unforgiving glare of the harsh light of day. “Pelican Blood” is a film about obsession, but I only have to give you a quick summation of Nikko the lead character (played by newcomer Harry Treadaway) to illustrate how it really is trying a little bit too hard with the theme. Nikko is young, good-looking and simmering with contemporary youth cool like he’s just wandered in from the set of “Skins”; he’s also an obsessive bird spotter (or ‘twitcher’ to use the semi-affectionate colloquial term for the hobby), and spends most of his free time with his two best mates Bish (Ali Graig) and Cameron (Arthur Darvill) roaming the wetlands and rural landscapes of England looking for rare birds so that he can note them down in a book as having been ‘spotted’, and move onto the next. In other words he’s a practitioner of one of those perfectly harmless but intrinsically pointless hobbies about which their devotees become endearingly obsessive. Unlike his two pals though, this isn’t enough obsession for obsession-addicted Nikko: he also has an obsessive-compulsive disorder about cleaning, which he’s at least managed to put to good use by turning it into a job as a house cleaner (we see him laboriously removing dirt with a knife from the minute crevice beneath one of his clients’ kitchen units). But having a job and a hobby that both pander to an obsessive personality still isn’t quite enough for this youth hero; he also takes obsession into his love life too when he rekindles a romance with the tempestuous Stevie (Emma Booth) an animal rights activist and environmental campaigner whom he first met on a – wait for it – suicide website chat room!
Oh yes, Nikko also goes in for a bit of trendy self-harm (nothing to unphotogenic though), and now has an uneasy relationship with his sister (Emma Clifford) after she was almost fatally injured herself trying to stop him slashing his wrists in a suicide pact with Stevie. Stevie, of course, being what is tactfully termed ‘a bit of a handful’ or ‘trouble’, never went through with her side of the pact and disappeared to Venezuela to ‘find herself’. Nikko was left to pick up the pieces on his own, and so when Stevie turns up again on the day of his mother’s funeral, Nikko’s friends, his sister and her husband are not best pleased to see this bad influence back in his life.
Nikko is re-energised by the intensity of the re-established romance though. He gets involved in Stevie’s animal rights demonstrations (“Save the Badger!”) and stops taking his medication; he tries to introduce her to the world of twitching but they end up indulging in a slightly different form of ‘twitching’ in the dark haven of one of Nikko’s favourite local bird hides. Stevie meanwhile, likes to keep the off-kilter relationship spicy by turning up at one of his client’s houses while Nikko is cleaning, and pretending to be an official checking up on his performance at work, asking the home owner lots of impertinent questions such as ‘has he made a pass at you, your husband, or any of your children?’
Bish and Cameron reluctantly allow Stevie to come along on one of their bird spotting expeditions (‘oh no, he’s brought Yoko!’ bemoans Cameron) but it all goes pear-shaped when they encounter the bird watcher’s greatest enemy – the rare egg collector. Stevie’s slightly unhinged ‘activist’ nature gets the better of her and she brutally attacks the man by throwing rocks at him and knocking him from a tree, leading to a rift between Nikko, Bish and Cameron when the enamoured boy defends his girlfriend’s violent actions. Nikko reveals that he still plans to carry out his suicide plan after he has reached his target of spotting 500 birds; he’s currently at 498. As their relationship gets more intense, Stevie becomes more unpredictable and hard to read, causing Nikko to veer more heavily into emotional instability and to indulge in increasingly impetuous behaviour. Things come to a head when the boys encounter some menacing poachers on one of their countryside jaunts, and Nikko’s desire to add one final bird to his list leads him down a much darker path than he could ever have imagined.
“Pelican Blood” is a strange mix of elements indeed and there is certainly enough oddity in there to keep viewers hanging on for the duration – yet, by the end, it hasn’t quite gelled as successfully as one would have hoped. As a character study, it’s at its best when depicting the relationship between the three friends Nikko, Bish and Cameron. Nikko only really makes sense as a character, or engenders any sort of empathy in the viewer, in the scenes when he’s with his two friends. The passion and commitment the trio demonstrate in pursuit of their self-confessedly pointless hobby is humorously conveyed without ridicule and the viewer is soon drawn in by their battles with fellow disruptive birders who deliberately send them on false trails, or by their contempt for farmers and egg collectors who disturb the nests of the friends’ beloved rare birds. Ali Graig and Arthur Darvill (now a bigger name than anyone else in the film through his role as Amy Pond’s husband Rory in “Doctor Who”) complement Treadaway’s brooding, unstable intensity perfectly-- Graig with his wayward Scottish humour and Darvill in portraying the more grounded and centred influence in the friendship. Darren Tierman’s photography brings a poetic intensity to the moody English countryside of muddy track-ways and wet forests, and the film is at its most elegiac when conveying Nikko’s delight at the prospect of spotting a rare species and floundering through the ferns and mud in hot pursuit of some ever-elusive bird on the wing.
The metaphor being essayed here isn’t too hard to spot of course, but it is ironic that the film is much more convincing in these bird spotting scenes -- mixing the gentle portrayal of friendship, the tenderness in the shared camaraderie, the rapt awe and eventually, raw suspense when Nikko comes up against those menacing poachers, in carefully parcelled measures -- than it is in relaying a believable relationship between Emma Booth’s unpredictable Stevie and Treadaway’s eternally troubled Nikko. There is a vague backstory about Nikko’s sister being in the process of selling their recently dead mother’s house that never seems to relate to anything, and Stevie is characterised throughout much of the film in such a way that her constant elusiveness and her overbearing quirkiness (she keeps a canister if helium by the bedside for after-sex party hijinks, for Christ’s sake!) actually just makes the character seem shallow and unappealing. The relationship never seems to have much depth to it and so it becomes difficult to credit all the talk of suicide, bi-polar disorder and the depiction of self-harm, as anything more than a spiky stylistic exercise to accompany all the discordant obscure indie rock that clutters the soundtrack. Both Booth and Treadaway are so good-looking and chicly dressed in the latest street fashions that, without any kind of examination of the root causes of their supposed angst or mental anguish, we’re not left with much option other than to see them as the rather irritating, self-obsessed and superficial constructs of a piece of work that is trying too hard to be ‘unusual’.
Icon Home Entertainment’s DVD presentation includes a 20 minute making of feature that, alongside the usual behind-the-scenes material and on-set interviews with cast and crew, also actually contains a really absorbing account of what's involved in the jobs of costume and production designer, which really casts a strong light on these little considered but vitally important aspects of any film.