Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Emily DuGranrut Featured Film

Every Little Thing — Sally Aitken [Sundance ’24 Review]

January 31, 2024

“You’re safe. You’re totally safe,” says Terry Masear to a small hummingbird named Wasabi in the opening moments of Every Little Thing. The documentary, directed by Sally Aitken and inspired by Masear’s own book Fastest Things on Wings, is a beautifully photographed depiction of the visual poetry of these birds and this enigmatic woman who cares for them. Armed with four graduate degrees, Masear has spent the better part of the last two decades operating a “hummingbird hotline,” where she has fielded more than 20,000 calls about rescuing and rehabbing these delicate creatures. Every Little Thing, filmed during the spring and summer of 2022, depicts one particularly busy hatching season, as this avian caregiver helps several birds survive and mourns those who don’t.

As Masear navigates the bustling traffic of Los Angeles to get Wasabi to her home and into a safe environment, it quickly becomes clear that she is anything but an unassuming documentary subject. Throughout the film, we watch her take several calls from uninitiated birders whom she calmly helps as though they were preschoolers and she was the most effective teacher. She speaks with a serene yet authoritative voice, engendering trust in her guidance on how to care for these birds. Through talking heads, we also learn a bit about Masear, though most of her past is kept intentionally vague; she mentions her rough childhood years, some adventures with drugs, and, most endearingly, we learn of her love for her late husband. But we don’t need to know the details of her every experience to understand her; there’s a whole life present and glimpsed in her interactions with the hummingbirds.

And what interactions they are. Whether it’s comforting Wasabi when he falls out of his nest, nurturing two newborns whose mother was killed, or burying the hummingbirds who don’t make it through, Masear’s blend of peaceful care and assured knowledge carries the film from simple documentary to touching portrait of the shared fragility of animals and humans. Thanks to Masear’s extraordinary presence and personality, it in some ways lends the impression that Aitken’s work is effortless, not in need of guidance. But by keeping equal focus on Masear and the mysterious, fluttering creatures she helps, Aitken has crafted that is stunning on multiple levels. Beyond the inspiring and engaging interactions between the carer and the cared are beautiful and attentively composed shots of the birds, both in their natural and unnatural habitats. This important balance carries the film, offering viewers not just stunning images, factual material, and a singular human center, but an ideal and affecting mixture of it all.