The opening shot of “Little Birds” tells us all we need to know about its heroine Lily, a 15-year-old stuck in a deader-than-dead-end town. As she lies in the bath, the camera pans across the pale white skin of her legs until it lands on some deep scars high on her thighs, the marks of a cutter. This girl, however jacked on teen hormones and desirous of life, is damaged, and we sense it’s only a matter of time before her self-destruct switch gets flipped.

“Little Birds” is a 2011 film just opening now in Japan for no apparent reason other than that its star, Juno Temple (of “Afternoon Delight”), has the sort of cute, jailbait-y looks that sell here and a bunch of topless scenes.

Less cynically, it could be that someone has recognized that Temple is on the cusp of a career breakthrough; she’s been ubiquitous in supporting roles — “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Maleficent,” “Lovelace,” “Black Mass”— but will star in the highly anticipated Martin Scorsese-produced HBO series “Vinyl,” starting next month. Either way, Temple takes what could have been a pretty standard coming-of-age indie flick and raises it to another level with a fierce performance.

Little Birds
Run Time 97 mins
Language English
Opens Now showing

Lily and her best friend, Alison (Kay Panabaker), live in a ramshackle, run-down former beach resort near the man-made Salton Sea in southern California; once a hipster retreat from LA, this desert “sea” is now ecologically dead, with the smell of algae blooms and rotting fish fouling the entire area. Half the town was abandoned in such haste that it looks like a set for “The Walking Dead.”

Alison makes the best of a crap situation, savoring her friendship with Lily on long bike rides along the trashed shore and grooming horses at a local stable. Lily, on the other hand, can think only of escape — of diving into that whole wide world of excitement she senses in magazines and TV. Lily also wants to get away from her trampy, alcoholic mom (Leslie Mann) and aunt (Kate Bosworth), who seem to embody Lily’s own future if she stays. So when a bunch of ruffian skaters pull into town and the cute shy one (Kyle Gallner) asks Lily to hook up with him if she’s ever in LA, she’s game.

With no real plan or money, she pushes the more sensible Alison into hitting the road. Ali, who’s not quite as easily seduced by boys with beer and bangs, hesitates.

Some people always seem to think there’s a yellow brick road over the rainbow, whereas others think your reality is what you make it, and director/screenwriter Elgin James neatly splits those worldviews between Ali and Lily.

James — a former hardcore punk militant who’s been beaten within an inch of his life, and who actually served time in prison for gang-related activity shortly after this film wrapped — is quite good at showing the stupid stuff kids do for kicks, and how easily it can cross from reckless to truly dangerous. Los Angeles is certainly no Oz, and the life of a teenage runaway in a squalid squat is dodgy enough, even without pulling some half-baked crimes. Ali wants to head home, but Lily is all in.

There have been a bunch of films about teen girls with a wild streak getting in over their heads — “Gas, Food, Lodging,” “Hick” and most of all, “Thirteen” spring to mind — and “Little Birds” isn’t all that different, though it does have a bit more of a sense that this is the teen feeling it, not the adult looking back.

The adult mind knows that your BFF will at some point get more interested in boys than in you, and will dis you if it means being cool with the rest of the crew, but the teen heart doesn’t see that train a-comin’, and that moment of impact becomes what “Little Birds” is all about.

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