Martin and Rachel are tucking in their ten-year-old son, Jonah when the boy refuses their hugs or kisses. Humoring their kid and thinking it's just a phase or a way of "testing" them, the parents give Jonah some space, instead lavishing their affection on their younger boy, Lester.
But from that night forward, Jonah seems to have changed his personality. Previously affectionate and childlike, he's now formal, cold and disdainful of affection -- he's become a grown-up in temperament, though at school and with his brother, he still seems very much like a child. The change in Jonah's behavior towards his parents vexes Martin, and it also exposes the chasms between him and his wife. Despite professional intervention (which finds no signs of mental illness in Jonah), Martin is bewildered at Jonah's rejection of his love and must come to terms with the uniqueness of his child and perhaps his own emotional needs.
Written and directed by Pantelis Peter Roumanis from a short story by acclaimed writer Ben Marcus, this intelligent, meticulous short is a fascinating Chinese puzzle box of a family chamber drama, told with an observant, almost clinical eye. Like the short story that the film is adapted from, the mode of storytelling is stripped-down yet incisive, allowing seemingly odd behavior, choices and statements to stand on their own, without explanation, and provoking questions on parental love. The camera and framing are often static and wide, watching this New York family like they're in a prosperous, comfortably middle-class fishbowl.
As the conflict develops and we see Jonah's parents reach out to no avail, the film gives rise to all kinds of questions. At first, we wonder what's wrong with Jonah. Is he a sociopath? Is he manipulating his parents, pushing their buttons in the way that only children can? Is this just a way that a child begins individuating from his parents? With a narrative that's both raw and emotionally opaque, the excellent performances of the actors both create mystery and empathy. Young performer Wesley Holloway plays Jonah with a perfect blend of distant formality -- rarely rude but vaguely superior and startlingly mature. Actor Max Van Edwards offers a complex, layered performance of an affectionate father who unravels as his son goes increasingly distant, which reveals his emotional faultlines. When he hits his breaking point with Jonah and acts out with a force that would push anyone away, he must accept the reality in front of him and grieve the picture of familial love he had in his head.
It is a common truism in modern-day middle-class parenting that children's needs come first; there is also discussion of parenting styles that often turn children into friends. But "Cold Little Bird" applies these ideas to a provocative situation that pushes their boundaries to the utmost limit. How do parents' own needs -- for love, control and respect, among others -- shape the way they raise children? And when those needs go unmet, how does that affect our relationships with them? Jonah remains a mystery at the end of the film; the main emotional journey is Martin's. In a bitter, ironic way, he glimpses one of the most difficult lessons of parenting -- where we learn to be the parent that a child needs, not the one we want to be.