A film review by Craig J. Koban December 12, 2017

LADY BIRD jjjj

2017, PG-13, 93 mins.

 

Saoirse Rona  as Chrstine  /  Laurie Metcalf as Marion  /  Lucas Hedges as Danny  /  Lois Smith as Sister Sarah  /  Tracy Letts as Larry  /  Beanie Feldstein as Julie  /  Timothee Chalament as Kyle

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

There have been many coming of age films that have traversed the life and times of an adolescent going through a tumultuous year in school, but very few are as exceptionally well written, flawlessly acted, and authentically rendered as LADY BIRD.  

Written and directed with great observational honesty by Greta Gerwig - making her solo directorial debut - the film deals with a rather troubled young girl as she tries to make it through her final year at her Catholic high school, and based on that description alone it would be deceptively easy to see where this underlining material could have went wrong.  Thankfully, this semi-autobiographical film for Gerwig wisely avoids stale and regurgitated clichés while reminding viewers that well past their prime genres can be infused with a newly minted lease on life with just the right innovative eye.  LADY BIRD also unequivocally proves that humbly scaled films can still pack strong and lasting dramatic punches. 

In many respects, Gerwig's film reminded me considerably of last year's sublime and underrated THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, another teen centric dramedy that had an oftentimes uncompromising truth and pathos about its tale of what young people deal with while eking out their young adult lives.  That overlooked film was handled with the utmost care and tact, and in much the same manner Gerwig imbues LADY BIRD the same level of hilarious bittersweetness and nerve wracking pathos that allows her film to take on the feel of a fly on the wall documentary of one girl's daily struggles.  Gerwig also wisely never drums up false and manufactured sentimentality in her story, nor does she drown the film in cloying artificiality.  Most of her characters are flawed and engage in selfishly behavior that's unpardonably damaging to those around them.  Yet, that's the subtle brilliance of LADY BIRD: It delivers stinging truths well past the point where they hurt the most, which allows the film to simmer with more unnerving veracity. 

 

 

Moreover, LADY BIRD shows Saoirse Ronan at the complete command of her performance craft.  The 23-year-old Irish talent has given one bravura and varied performance after another, like in the action thriller HANNA, the period drama BROOKLYN, and the richly farcical THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.  Here she plays the titular character, a nickname that she's given herself and insists that seemingly everyone around her call her by.  Lady Bird's birth name is Christine McPherson and she resides - like the Gerwig in real life growing up - in Sacramento, California and on the wrong side of the tracks (not a metaphor...her family literally lives on the bad side of the railway tracks).  Set in the early 2000's, LADY BIRD deals with its young protagonist attending a rather progressive minded Catholic school, which her mother Marion (a superb Laurie Metcalf) hopes will help cultivate her into a fine young woman free from sin.  Christine seems to relish in anti-social behavior at the school, whether it take the form of eating communion wafers like potato chips or, in one spirited and rebellious instance, dressing up one of the nun's cars with "Just Married to Jesus" graffiti.   

Despite being relatively happy-go-lucky on the outside, Christine almost venomously hates living in Sacramento and yearns for a time when she can move away to the furthest college she can to escape.  This, of course, doesn't sit well with Marion, whose "warm and scary" overprotective and sometimes unhealthily honest disposition with her daughter creates multiple emotional roadblocks throughout the film.  To make matters worse, Christine's dad (a quietly melancholic Tracy Letts) is unemployed and chronically depressed.  Christine decides to make what she can of her morose situation by joining the school's musical production of Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, during which times she starts crushing on the sexually conflicted and geeky Danny (MANCHESTER BY SEA's terrifically natural Lucas Hedges).  After that relationship goes down the toilet, Christine finds herself lusting after a cool and collected musician (Timothee Chalamet), which eventually puts her at a distance with her BFF (Beanie Feldstein).  Complicating matters altogether are Chrstine's superiors, who constantly remind her that her grades are not adequate enough to get a scholarship in the prestigious colleges she wants to attend. 

Gerwig's attention to the small and subtle details of how her characters talk are among LADY BIRD's largest triumphs.  When people speak each other in this film it's filled with lively and specific wordplay that accurately captures the ebbs and flows of how they would talk in real life.  Some of the individual dialogue exchanges are remarkably economical, with a few keys words being used to help sell key moments; characters enunciate in a refreshing shorthand.  That, and Gerwig displays a confidence with her underlining themes that helps cement this film well apart from a crowded pack.  LADY BIRD is a story about a rule breaking and authority defying teenager, to be sure, but it's also an commentary on how teens make impractically poor and damaging decisions in life while trying to grow up, and all while embarking on a spiritual and sexual awakening that can be awkward and humiliating.  LADY BIRD does have some familiar troupes, but it never goes for obvious audience placating payoffs.  The gritty lived in approach here allows for the discontentment of many of the film's characters to be simultaneously unbearable to watch and oddly relatable.   

Christine herself is an endlessly fascinating character; deep down she's a sensitive and caring individual, but outwardly she's capable of behaving toxically towards those who have her best interests at heart.  She frequently lives within a tight and nearly impenetrable bubble of self-importance, which subsequently leads to her committing one social mistake after another and then being faced to deal with the disastrous ramifications.  Her self-loathing stems from her lower class existence, which she feels stymies any and all opportunity for her.  Ronan has been astoundingly poised in many films before, but here she bravely thrusts herself headfirst into this spitefully impulsive anti-heroine with a never look back relish.  Blessed with exemplary comic timing and a low key manner of cutting to the dramatic heart of scenes with minimal fuss, Ronan convincingly crafts a beleaguered portrait of teen angst.  She also never makes Christine a figure of easy likeability; this is a self absorbed girl that does harm to herself and others in all ways preventable.  Yet, she's nevertheless and inviting personality despite her questionable transgressions, which is a testament to Ronan's chameleon-like ability to inhabit any character she attempts. 

Unlike so many other teen centric films, LADY BIRD never paints the parental figures as one-note and unsympathetic stooges.  Gerwig's script is atypically democratic in terms of getting into the mindset of Christine's mother as well, who's arguably just self-centered as her offspring.  LADY BIRD is ultimately about the intersection between Christine's needs and those of Marion's, and the headache inducing confrontations that both have with each other throughout.  Both women are sometimes frustratingly stubborn and seem like cold reflections of each other, which leaves many of their verbal battles at uneasy stalemates.  The failure of their relationship is one of communication and mutual empathy for the other's prerogative.  Christine emboldens herself against her mother in her quest for absolute independence from her, whereas Marion steadfastly strikes back against her daughter's desire for autonomy, often letting her anxieties about her boil over in scenes of damning honesty.  Metfalf has arguably the trickiest role in the film, seeing as she has to play a vulnerable and wounded woman with hidden emotional pains and understandable motives that also happens to be overbearingly aggressive in unsupportive ways to her child, and it's one of the most layered portrayals of an imperfect matriarch that I've seen in a film in quite some time.   

LADY BIRD is also screamingly funny at times and contains scenes that are absurdist gems, like, for instance, one moment that features Christine going into a local convenience store to buy a lottery ticket, a pack of cigarettes, and a Playgirl magazine on her 18th birthday...not because she wants these items, but rather because she feels empowered by her ability to legally do so.  Moments like this are emblematic of how much precise care and attention that Gerwig has painstakingly taken to juggle LADY BIRD's multiple tones.  The 34-year-old has given memorable performances in the past, in particular in Noah Baumbach indies like FRANCES HA and MISTRESS AMERICA, and she acclimates herself astonishingly well with her transition to a soulful filmmaker with something fundamental to add to the coming of age genre conversation.   LADY BIRD is a small and unassuming film made with modesty by a rookie director, but its triumphs are as grand and noteworthy.  Expertly teetering between high hilarity and devastating dramatic turmoil in equal measure, LADY BIRD is one the most refreshing surprises of 2017. 

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