Every Little Thing
(Australia, 93 min.)
Dir. Sally Aitken
Programme: U.S. Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
Hummingbirds might pack more wonder per gram than any being on Earth. Their strikingly-coloured wings, detailed and buoyed by delicate plumage, flap at a rate of over 50 times per second. Their sinewy beaks double as fancy straws that sip nectar from the most colourful flowers on Earth. They traverse continents and travel large distances. Their epic migrations charm onlookers in Canada, the USA, Mexico, and beyond. It’s hard not to be awed by these tiny beings when they set up camp in one’s backyard.
Terry Masear, moreover, is the main character of Every Little Thing, but she she’s happy to play a supporting role to these wondrous birds. Director Sally Aitken (Playing with Sharks) takes viewers inside the Los Angeles Hummingbird Rescue where Masear tends to broken birds. Masear might be the only person who lives in her grand mansion in the Hollywood hills, but she’s not alone.
Cages upon cages house birds as Masear nurses them back to health. Aitken observes how Masear gets upwards of 50 calls daily, especially during peak migration seasons, from Los Angelinos who encounter birds in distress. Every Little Thing offers a tender and inspiring portrait of volunteerism as Masear commits herself to these birds. The film provides a uniquely humanist environmental film without anthropomorphizing the beautiful creatures at its centre.
Birds like Wasabi, Sugar Baby, and Cactus are among the film’s diverse cast. Masear’s makeshift ICU captures the range of hummingbirds that awe onlookers, but also illustrates the extensive ways in which human activity effects birds’ lives. Poor Sugar Baby, for example, lands in Masear’s care after a rough run-in with a family. Masear dabs the bird’s wings with water and points out how crispy and fragile the feathers have become. She speculates that the rescuer’s kids likely gave poor Sugar Baby a bath in sugar water. But sugar ruins a bird’s wings, Masear explains, which makes it unlikely that Sugar Baby will fly again. Despite the odds, Masear nurses best she can.
While Masear can’t contain her judgment in this case, she tries best she can to encourage rescuers whose birds have poor odds. She’s patient and provides updates about the patients. Other callers simply want reassurance—a welcome reminder that some people respect harmony with nature.
Other colourful characters in the cast include Alexa and Mikhail. They’re two lovebirds—or so Mikhail thinks—that Masear keeps caged together. Mikhail puffs his chest and tries to woo Alexa, but she’s having nothing of it. That’s because they’re different species, Masear explains with a laugh. Yet the birds’ company helps them thrive, whereas others deteriorate with loneliness.
While the doc meanders somewhat in search of a fuller story, Aitken wisely plays the birds off Masear’s own narrative while respecting the distinction between humans and non-human animals. Every Little Thing explores how Masear came to be the birds’ caregiver, charting a story through trauma and redemption. Masear reflects upon how she was always an odd one out until she fell in love with an older man, Frank.
She recalls experiencing the world anew as they rode motorcycles and saw the country, eventually settling in Los Angeles where progressive minds (and mind-opening substances) expanded her perspective. She tells of her insatiable hunger for knowledge, amassing five graduate degrees while honing her passion for research and writing. Her work endures in the book Fastest Things on Wings, a thorough text about hummingbirds that serves as the springboard for Every Little Thing. (Masear is also the author of Connecting with Enchanting Cats, which perhaps explains why Every Little Thing, unlike other bird docs, isn’t vehemently anti-cat.)
While Masear is a great character, the stars of the film are the birds themselves. Masear and Aitken know it. Every Little Thing uses top-of-the-line technology to observe the hummingbirds in exquisite detail. Wildlife cinematographer Ann Johnson Prum captures the rapid-fire fluttering of the birds’ wings that afford their distinct hum. Macro lenses afford glimpses of the birds’ feathers and markers that one rarely sees with a naked eye. Since hummingbirds fly so swiftly, and can move vertically and horizontally, they simply aren’t easy to take in even if their slaking their thirst with sugar water from a feeder mere feet away. The film manages to harness the birds in slo-mo detail without slowing them down. It’s easy to see why Masear adores them so much. Cinematographers Nathan Barlow and Dan Freene add the birds’ perspective through drone footage that tours the Hollywood hills. The sprawling mansions accentuate how small the hummingbirds are in the grand scheme of things.
The eye for detail and characterization inevitably makes the loss of unsuccessful patients hit hard. Yet as some birds succumb to their injuries, Masear provides them little burials in the yard. She notes that their delicate bones return to the earth in mere days. Aitken, however, finds more stories of renewals and rebounds. Masear rehabilitates the hummingbirds towards their return to the wild. She helps them strengthen the muscles and reflexes that make them fly. When they do take flight, it’s sad to see them go, but also a bittersweet reward for the effort.