Every Little Thing review – hummingbird documentary shimmers with the best of humanity

<span>Hummingbirds may be tiny, but they are also feisty … a still from the documentary Every Little Thing directed by Sally Aitken.</span><span>Photograph: Sally Aitken/Sydney Film Festival</span>
Hummingbirds may be tiny, but they are also feisty … a still from the documentary Every Little Thing directed by Sally Aitken.Photograph: Sally Aitken/Sydney Film Festival

Encounters with hummingbirds are not easily forgotten. I vividly remember my first, on a visit to Los Angeles 15 years ago: walking the streets of Beverly Hills, it buzzed towards me like a supersized bee, eyeballed me, pivoted, and zipped across the road, leaving me slack-jawed with wonder that something so miraculous could even exist.

Miracles abound in Australian director Sally Aitken’s film Every Little Thing, which is inspired by Terry Masear’s 2016 book Fastest Things on Wings. Masear, who has dedicated her home (also in Beverly Hills) to the rehabilitation of injured hummingbirds for 18 years, is the star. But it’s the supporting cast she cares for that will capture hearts.

There’s Jimmy, who fell out of his nest after his mother failed to return home. Mikhail, who shares a cage with (and seems to have the hots for) Alexa, despite the fact she’s a different species. Raisin, who looks fine, but has suffered head and internal injuries. And Cactus, who appears to have as much chance as Dumb & Dumber’s Lloyd Christmas.

It’s a straightforward premise for a film. But life, as Masear tells us at one point, is a series of metaphors stacked up on top of each other, and so it is with Every Little Thing. It’s a shimmering, densely layered film about love and resilience, about how we live with and recover from trauma, and about letting go.

The lives of hummingbirds are brief and brilliant. These fizzy balls of cartoonish, iridescent energy appear to change colour and shape before our eyes. And when they die, Masear says, their bones are so light they disintegrate within a couple of days, “like they weren’t here to begin with”.

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Early in the film, grainy home video footage of what appears to be Masear running down a hill tells us this is not just a documentary about birds. She is clearly made of stern stuff, but as she warns later, talking about what drew her to caring for the birds in the first place might cause her to suddenly evaporate, too.

Born into poverty among the red barns of rural Wisconsin, Masear’s parents discouraged her from seeking a life beyond their own confines. Abused by her mother, she later moves to LA, which she compares to another planet. On the West Coast, a big life unfurls: she falls in love, pursues four graduate degrees, and her mind is expanded by (she hints) LSD.

“People think staying on course is scary,” Masear says. “Try having the whole world of infinite possibility in front of you. It’s terrifying.” Along the way, we see repeated closeups of flowers opening and beckoning us, as they do for the nectar-seeking hummingbirds. This, too, is a metaphor for personal development and daring to be different.

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Masear’s growth is deftly spliced with that of her tiny charges, as she moves them from ICU (small enclosures) to the final flight aviary from which the lucky ones will fly free. She has to prepare them for battle: hummingbirds are tiny, but they’re also feisty. “This is Club Med,” she says. “When we let them go, they’re going out into combat, into a war zone.”

She talks tough, tries not to get too attached, and never tells the first responders who bring the birds to her if she doesn’t think they’re going to make it. Most of them, she says, can’t handle the brutal, Darwinian truth about nature: that only the strong survive.

But kindness is at the core of Every Little Thing. Masear never measures a rescue by the outcome; only by the compassion that went into trying to save the bird in the first place. Those that don’t pull through are given the dignity of a decent burial, with hand-picked flowers from Masear’s garden.

The ones that thrive become stroppy teenagers, almost turning on the foster carer who nurtured them. The more badly damaged birds can be reluctant to leave, for they already know life is hard. Caring for wildlife, Masear says, means you need to be comfortable with failure and loss – but if you do it right, it flies away at the end.

“The truth is when you show compassion, and you show love for something that you don’t have to, it’s an act of greatness,” she says. The measure of Masear’s humanity is how she treats, yes, every little thing. It could be the measure of ours, too.

  • Every Little Thing will be showing at the Sydney film festival on Saturday 15 June and Sunday 16 June