I think it's safe to say that not a lot of people know much about pelicans, let alone that there is a tiny documentary about them circulating. It's directed by Judy Irving, a woman with a small budget but enthusiasm to spare. She narrates the film, which focuses on two California brown pelicans that have been injured and are being rehabilitated. Her approach to her subject is a mixture of wonder and scientific inquiry. The former can threaten to sink the latter at points ("Can't pelicans have dreams, too?") but ultimately the birds and their rehabilitators prove to be more than compelling enough to keep this documentary afloat.
When filmmakers take up an animal as their subject, the resulting movie tends to be more reflective of the people who made it than the animal itself. Fascinatingly, that is precisely what occurs with Pelican Dreams. One of the birds with whom we become acquainted is named Gigi, after the Golden Gate Bridge, where she was found wandering with a damaged wing. Her rehabilitator, Monte, is perhaps more interesting than his patient. He has long, wild-looking hair, a crooked smile, and endless patience, even when he jams his whole arm down the throat of a wild pelican to dislodge a tuna head. He lives in a tiny, ramshackle trailer with his wife, all the better to be mobile and closer to his birds. Monte says that you don't "do it for the money," and it shows. But his sacrifice seems to affect him little, as he never seems anything less than thrilled to be around pelicans. His zest for his job is infectious, and works as an onscreen stand-in for Irving's own.
On a sadder note, there is the male pelican, Morro, who lives at home with a married couple who provide amateur physical therapy for his own busted wing. The home is a sort of halfway house for broken down animals, and because Morro is too injured, his acquaintances with other pelicans are frequently truncated. His is the sadder side of getting better, because his stay is a permanent one. In these sequences, Irving widely keeps the editorializing to a minimum, instead allowing us to study Morro closely as he wanders around his prison-cum-shelter.
By way of backdrop for these two stories, Irving delves in some straight-up biology, giving us the pelicans' expansive nesting ground as a place to learn about them. Wild pelicans lead a harsh existence, most of which don't make it a few weeks unless they are the first born (due to lack of food). Irving made a good decision by showing us this dark side of nature, because the film can at times threaten to drown in sentimentality. Between Irving's hippy-dippy narration, and the goopy guitar score by Bruce Kaphan, the film can be a bit insufferable.
Fortunately, the film overcomes these setbacks through its intriguing subject and the clear dedication on the part of the director. Seek it out if you like animals, or just want to support micro-filmmakers.