Lady BirdReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/10/17 11:10:23
Just to get things out of the way early, “Lady Bird” is a nearly perfect film—perhaps of the funniest and most endearing coming-of-age film to come along since “Rushmore.” Actually, I thought of “Rushmore” a lot while watching because, much like that earlier film, it takes a familiar basic narrative and finds a new angle to it that makes it into a cinematic experience that is both utterly unique and absolutely recognizable to anyone who made it through the pains of adolescence with their sense of humor reasonably intact. In theory, my praise for this movie is not especially off the reservation as it has been receiving critical hosannahs pretty much across the board since it began its tour of the fall festival circuit a couple of months ago. What may seem strange, at least to long-time readers of my reviews, is that this film also marks the solo directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, an actress who usually inspires in me the feelings one normally associates with obnoxious and overly mannered fingernails going down a chalkboard. In the past, the only performance of hers that I have liked was her turn in Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress,” where her more obnoxious qualities perfectly fit the character she was playing. Needless to say, the idea of watching a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Gerwig filled me with the sort of anti-anticipation that one usually associates with sequels to lesser Adam Sandler vehicles. As this film proves, however, whatever it is that she has in front of the camera that irritates me is clearly not a factor when stepping behind it.Although the title, coupled with the recent release of “LBJ,” may suggest otherwise, “Lady Bird” has nothing to do with the wife of our 36th president. Instead, it is the semi-precocious nickname that 17-year-old Christine McPherson (Saorise Ronan) has given to herself and which she insists on being addressed as. The one person who refuses to give in to that demand is her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a woman as down-to-earth and brutally practical as her daughter is flighty and vaguely condescending towards anything that she doesn’t like. We get a pretty good look at the state of their relationship in the very first scene, in which we see them driving back from a road trip to look at local colleges near the Sacramento suburb where they live. With the 21 hours of the audiobook of “The Grapes of Wrath” now completed and unable to serve as a buffer, they start in on each other—Christine insists that Sacramento is beneath her and that she wants to go to school in New York where she can finally be free to express herself while Marion reminds her that money is tight and her grades aren’t great before wondering aloud when her daughter became such a snob. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for the film, do not do so now because it gives away the punchline to the scene and it is one of the most explosively funny things to hit a movie screen this year.
The film follows Christine over the course of roughly a year as she negotiates the normal pitfalls encountered by a teenager making the final transition from adolescence to adulthood. There is a longtime best pal, Julie (Beanie Feldstein) that Christine is shockingly willing to kick to the curb the moment that the teen queen (Odeya Rush) of the Catholic school that they attend allows her a place in her orbit. There are a couple of brief romances—one with a nice theater kid (Lucas Hedges) and one with a self-styled and self-satisfied “rebel” (Timothee Chalamet), the kind who knows the words to the works of Howard Zinn but not the music—and both end in ways that could not possibly comes as unexpected to anyone other than Christine herself. At home, things are becoming tenser. Christine has her doting father (Tracey Letts) pretty much wrapped around her finger but he has begun sinking into a depression since losing his tech job. (In one of the more poignant moments, he goes in for a job interview and discovers not only that he is the oldest applicant by far—not good in an industry that prizes youth—but that his own adopted son is also interviewing for the same position.) Above all, there is Marion, who Christine sees as little more than an impediment to her dreams of fleeing Sacramento for the East Coast. For Marion, things are a little more complicated and if Christine were a little less self-involved in the way that most teenagers are at that age, she might realize that her mother’s intransigence is borne less out a desire to be mean than it is a manifestation of her Herculean efforts to keep her family’s head above water on her paycheck as a nurse that she augments by pulling as many double shifts as she possibly can, even one on Christine’s 18th birthday.
Although Gerwig is herself a Sacramento native who moved to New York City to seek artistic fulfillment, she claims that “Lady Bird” is not necessarily an autobiographical work. I am not so sure that I believe that but if that is indeed the case, then that makes the film an even more impressive achievement because there is not a single moment here that doesn’t have the feel of utter authenticity to it. Take the punchline to the opening scene that I referenced earlier. In lesser hands, it might have just come off as a goofy sight gag and nothing more but Gerwig handles it in a manner that not only makes it feel realistic while still coming across as funny (though it might take those involved a little longer to see the humor in it) but establishes the characters of Christine and Marion so deftly and precisely that the climax is less a punchline than perhaps the only possible way that such a moment between those two characters could end. Gerwig’s screenplay is filled with authentic details like that, the kind of universal moments that viewers of all backgrounds will instantly recognize from their own lives. I especially love the moment when Christine is sent down to see the head nun (Lois Smith) over a prank she pulled and discovers that she is not going to be punished for it on the grounds that the nun actually found it funny. This patina of authenticity is especially vivd in regards to the way that Gerwig effectively paints the unsteady economic climate of the period, both in general terms and in specific regards to Christine and her family. For example, she effortlessly illustrates how something as simple as a magazine in a grocery store can serve as a flashpoint between Christine and Marion. Christine is mad that Marion won’t buy it for her—it is only three lousy bucks, after all—and we are on Christine’s side at first until Marion gets to the checkout line and it becomes obvious to us, if not her daughter, that she is not entirely sure that she has enough money to pay for the things that they absolutely need, forget about a frivolity like a magazine that will be read once and forgotten.
Gerwig’s screenplay is filled with moments and observations like this and it is likely that it will be the aspect of her creative efforts here that is most celebrated but her work as a director is also quite fantastic, albeit in a quieter fashion. The film is not exactly flashy from a visual standpoint but every move that she makes behind the camera—from the brief montages illustrating life in Catholic school to the way that she depicts Sacramento as a nice enough town that may lack the flash of better-known cities but which nevertheless has a charm to it that will one day be appreciated. She knows how to stage a comedic scene in a straightforward manner that isn’t especially jokey on the surface but which ultimately helps to serve the material and handles the dramatic material in an equally deft manner. (The way in which she handles the revelation of one person’s sexual orientation is just about perfect.) The also proves to be quite deft in the way that she handles her actors. Of course, when you are working with actors as talented as Ronan (whose American accent is spot-on throughout), Metcalf and Letts, you are already ahead of the game—and this is some of the best work that those three have done in their not-inconsiderable screen careers—but every single role seems to have been cast and performed with care and precision—Lois Smith is especially good as the nun who quietly defies every possible expectation we might have about her based on Catholic school nuns that we have seen in other films over the years.When I first saw “Lady Bird,” the only thing close to a reservation that I had with it had to do with the ending—I understood what Gerwig was going for but it seemed a bit unsatisfactory, especially in comparison to all that had come before it. The funny thing, however, is that as time has passed, that very same ending has continued to resonate in my mind and now I cannot think of a better way of bringing the story to its conclusion. Like the rest of the movie, it kind of blindsides you in the way that it nails a moment that all of us have either gone through in our lives or will go through at some point with wit and emotion that is genuinely earned rather than imposed via tricks like a sad song on the soundtrack. At that point, we know that Christine is going to be all right and that she will one day look back on the events depicted here with a combination of embarrassment and wry humor. Who knows, maybe she will one day recount the events into something as wonderful as this film.
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