Tuesday, 27 February 2018
2017 USA Directed by Greta Gerwig
UK cinema release print.
I’ve not seen Greta Gerwig in much... but I was impressed with her performance in Frances Ha (reviewed by me here) which she co-wrote with her current partner, director Noah Baumbach and I also saw her in a more minor role in Jackie (reviewed here). She seems to be a pretty good actress and an engaging personality. Lady Bird, which she also wrote but doesn’t star in, is her 'solo directorial debut' (it’s technically her second feature) and it’s ‘inspired by’ her time growing up and going to a Catholic High School in Sacramento.
The film stars the always wonderful Saoirse Ronan, who impressed me as Hanna (reviewed here), continued to impress me in Byzantium (reviewed here) and also in her small role in The Grand Budapest Hotel (reviewed here). I’m not sure how long she can keep playing these ‘young waif’ parts (she’s actually 23) but she gets away with it here and I can’t imagine anyone else being as good in this role.
The film takes place in 2002, which seems a strange time to set it in terms of period colour or anchor point details... except it coincides with the director’s time at the same school, apparently. It’s a little bit of a cliché, I guess, in that it’s a familiar tale of the trials, tribulations and angst that comes from going to High School, falling out with friends and then winning them back, first sexual encounters etc. It also, though, deals with a strong clash of personalities as the main character, Lady Bird (her given name... she gave it to herself) and her mother Marion (played by Laurie Metcalf) are constantly pitched against each other... like many families, I guess.
The film is completely successful, though, in everything that it sets out to do.
There’s no real story in the linear sense of plot goals etc (unless you count the constant plot point about getting into a halfway good college) but it’s one of those tales where the story takes on the shape of the little experiences and bonds which various characters share as they continue through their passage towards the conclusion of the movie... ending up with a piece which is a complete sketch of a character and her milieu with an ending that’s a little unexpected in its rapidity and, in some ways, slight lack of closure. Although, that being said, any chance of any more closure to the arc might have endangered the film's credibility and made it a little too syrupy, I suspect. it’s a pretty good ending as it is anyway. I won’t try and summarise the film in my usual way because it won’t really amount to much in terms of plot details, I suspect.
What I will say is that the film is also extremely smart and funny as hell. And, it has to be said, well observed.
One of the things which stood out for me was, for the most part, the way in which the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother can really flip on a dime, like a lot of families can kind of juggle that hell-hath-no-fury to ‘ooh, that’s a nice dress’ kind of back and forth with relative ease and with no real idea of how that kind of almost bipolar behaviour looks to an outsider. There’s a lot of that style of dialogue and attitude of the ‘functional vs disfunctional’ family unit going on here and it’s to Gerwig and her performer’s credit that it comes over so well when other movies might treat that similar dynamic in a less credible way and with a much heavier hand or, more often than not, leave it out completely.
The other thing the film does well... and this is as much about the performances and the way they are edited as much as the writing... is to deal with the comedy of the way opposite desires or emotions are suddenly turned on their head and acted upon by setting up an expectation of the strength of the lack of commitment to a specific action and then instantly defeating it. That is to say, and I’ll use a really crude example here to illustrate, culled from dozens of movies every year but not, I’m happy to say, from Lady Bird. What I’m talking about is that kind of comedic set up where person x tells person y that such and such is something that they’re never going to do and then you cut to a scene where they are doing the exact thing they just said they would never do. Now, Lady Bird doesn’t do anything quite that primitive in execution but a lot of the, very funny and true humour of the thing comes from that awkward kind of ‘what does person x want me to say’, then saying the wrong thing anyway and then quickly back peddling or negating the original thought or opinion with the opposite kind of acknowledgment. And it really works here. If you’re going to do this kind of observational comedy and not let it cross over into the embarrassment of the characters then the timing has to be dead right and, yeah... it’s done so well here. This kind of humour doesn’t always work but, in Lady Bird, it almost never misfires.
I guess the main things which really help the movie breeze along is the truth in the characters (you feel like these are real people Gerwig is writing about and, I suspect, that’s probably the case) and the sheer sense of fun in the humour. For instance, the shot where Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein) are lying on the floor chatting energetically while eating their way through a jar of communal wafers had a good reaction from the audience and brought a smile to my face. And this sense of fun and honesty permeates the film so that you really can’t help but like it.
Probably the one reason I wanted to go and see this movie is because the trailer had a song from The Monkees psychedelic trip of a movie, Head, in it... As We Go Along if I recall correctly. Alas, unless I was concentrating on something too hard and missed it, the song never found its way into the actual movie but, luckily, the film was so good I really didn’t mind. It’s only February but so far this year we’ve had a lot of great movies already and, obviously, Lady Bird is one of them. Recommended to all lovers of cinema but especially those who cherish a good ear for dialogue and a sense of fun that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. Really glad I got to see this one at a cinema.