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Cathy (Clarisse Djuroski) is a child of divorce in rural Belgium who receives a duckling egg on her birthday. However, when the egg hatches, the first person the bird sees is Cathy’s friend Margaux (Lea Warny), who suffers from a muscular disease and uses a wheelchair. The friends decide to co-parent this new feathered arrival. When Margaux’s parents object to the duckling’s presence, the girls take off for “Bird Paradise,” where they hope to return it to the wild in peace.

The scene-stealer in Birds of Passage is a fluffy yellow duckling that, strangely, none of the characters name. The tiny bird is destined to garner smiles and coos from all kids and the young at heart. This is a relief, since the new film from director Olivier Ringer deals with a slew of mature themes. The irresistible bird does manage to offer her young co-stars, Djuroski and Warny, room to develop nuanced portraits of girls hoping for freedom outside a small town.

Birds of Passage is surprisingly restrained for a film about girls trying to mentor a duckling. One can imagine the zany slapstick gags that a broad comedy with a similar synopsis could have. Still, the tender premise turns frantic and intense in the second half, when the protagonists stray from the path and go missing. Some of these moments feel forced, doing a disservice to what had been a nuanced look at loyalty, friendship and the freedom of youth. (Also annoying: the disabled Margaux is often put in needless peril due to her injury.)